Paul Johnson has always had a chip on his shoulder when it comes to criticism of his precious triple-option football.
“There are things Paul harbors, I believe, from years ago that still grate on him,” said Navy athletics director Chet Gladchuk. “The thought that his offense wouldn’t work at Navy or that it wouldn’t work at Georgia Tech was all he needed.
“When there’s a disbelief in his ability to deliver, Paul has got a fuse about him that takes him to another level.”
Offend Johnson – current head coach of defending ACC Coastal Division winner and Orange Bowl champion Georgia Tech – by questioning his use of triple-option football and you’re stirring up a hornet’s nest of emotion for which those who have been on a football field with Johnson consider legendary.
This weekend, Johnson brings his Yellow Jackets into Notre Dame Stadium where he’ll be stationed on the visiting east sideline, directly across the field from his old/new nemesis – Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
Johnson coached FCS Georgia Southern for five seasons (1997-2001), winning the Southern Conference championship each of those years while compiling a dazzling 62-10 record. He led the Eagles to 14-1, 13-2, 13-2 and 12-2 marks over his final four seasons with a 1-AA runner-up finish in his second year and national titles in his third and fourth.
Following the 2001 season, he jumped to Navy, where he turned a 2-10 team in 2002 into a 43-19 program with five straight bowl appearances, including a 46-44 triple-overtime victory over the Fighting Irish in Notre Dame Stadium in 2007, which snapped Notre Dame’s 43-game winning streak over the Midshipmen.
Johnson parlayed his successful six-year stint in Annapolis into the head-coaching position at Georgia Tech. In 2014, he turned the Ramblin’ Wreck into an ACC force with an 11-3 mark.
It was while Johnson was still at Navy that VanGorder got his hackles up. VanGorder – who had roots in the state of Georgia as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator from 2001-04 – was named Georgia Southern’s head coach after Johnson’s successor, Mike Sewak, was fired following the 2005 season.
VanGorder left the Jacksonville Jaguars after a one-year stint as linebackers coach to take over the Georgia Southern program in 2006.
VanGorder set the wheels in motion by saying he was going to bring the Georgia Southern program “into the 21st century” – a direct reference to Johnson’s “archaic” triple option – and by going 3-8 in his one year in Statesboro before promptly returning to the NFL as defensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons.
“Paul called me up and said, ‘I need to talk to (Georgia Southern athletics director) Sam (Baker) and get Georgia Southern on the (Georgia Tech) schedule,’” said Roger Inman, a long-time Georgia Southern administrator.
“I said, ‘Why do you want to play us?’” said Inman in a 2014 USA Today interview. “And he said, ‘Because I want to beat the hell out of Brian VanGorder.’”
Johnson will have that chance this weekend when he goes head-to-head with VanGorder, armed with the most lethal rushing attack known to man. Nine times in 2014, the Yellow Jackets rushed for at least 300 yards en route to a nation-leading 342 yards rushing per game.
Pittsburgh surrendered 465 yards on the ground in a 56-28 Georgia Tech victory. North Carolina State yielded 479 in a 56-23 slamming. Johnson’s crew rushed for 399 yards in an upset victory over Georgia “between the hedges” for the Yellow Jackets’ first win over the Bulldogs since 2008. Florida State held on for dear life in a 37-35 win over Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game before Mississippi State succumbed to a 452-yard rushing onslaught in a 49-34 Orange Bowl shellacking.
Georgia Tech returns four starting offensive linemen from 2014 as well as triple-option maestro Justin Thomas at quarterback.
Notre Dame and VanGorder haven’t exactly gotten a handle on triple-option football based upon Irish performances against Navy during the Brian Kelly era.
Ken Niumatalolo – Johnson’s successor at Navy – orchestrated a 367-yard rushing effort against defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in 2010 in a 35-17 victory over Notre Dame. It took everything the Irish had to withstand a 331-yard rushing onslaught in 2013 to claim a 38-34 victory over the Midshipmen.
Last season, VanGorder’s first with the Irish, Notre Dame surrendered 22-second half points in a 49-39 Notre Dame victory that featured another 336 yards on the ground by Navy.
While Notre Dame has tried to get a handle on triple-option football with the assigning of former Irish assistant Bob Elliott as special assistant to Kelly – with a specific edict to stop the attacks featured by Navy and Georgia Tech – the Irish enter Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech/Johnson with more hope than proof it can slow the triple-option juggernaut.
“He remembers everything,” said Kennesaw State head coach Brian Bohannon, a long-time Johnson assistant. “He feeds off that. Somebody says he can’t do something (and) he’s going to be hell bent to do it. That’s just the way coach is.”
Caught in Johnson’s crosshairs this weekend is VanGorder, whose steely-eye stare won’t intimidate Johnson, particularly with VanGorder’s comments from his Georgia Southern days still ringing in his head.
For Johnson’s part, he’s tried to downplay the “perceived” venom toward VanGorder.
“I always looked to see what their score was,” said Johnson in 2006, “but I didn’t lose any sleep over it.”
“I don’t know where everybody got that,” said Johnson this week about his dislike for VanGorder. “I’ve never coached against the guy. I don’t know that we’ve ever had a conversation.
“(VanGorder) said something about bringing (Georgia Southern) into the 21st century, and I said, ‘There’s a (scoring) record there, shoot for it.’ So that was it.”
Now it’s the Notre Dame defense that is losing sleep this week over Johnson’s offense with VanGorder looking smack dab in the face of a competitor who would like nothing more than to exact his revenge.