The Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year doesn’t break dance in the locker room, give fiery pep talks or share slapstick humor at football gatherings.
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson draws enough attention doing the same-old stuff the same-old way with the same-old, dry demeanor.
Even on the golf course.
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“Well, my impression of him is you don’t want to get on the golf course with him in any sort of competitive fashion, because he’s certainly going to have an edge that way — and don’t let him tell you he’s even a 3 or 4 handicap,” said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, whose No.8 Bulldogs (10-2, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) meet Johnson’s No.10 Yellow Jackets (10-3, 6-2 ACC) on New Year’s Eve in the Capital One Orange Bowl.
Mullen, an energetic, brash, turbulent character, on Tuesday described Johnson as a “first-class individual.”
“He’s serious about football, loves what he does, very passionate about the game,” Mullen said, “so, he’s a great guy to talk about football.”
Johnson’s triple-option offense is as basic and smooth as his personality.
Quarterback Justin Thomas can hand off, or has the option of running, pitching or passing the ball. The deceptive offense produces huge chunks of yardage and keeps the ball in Tech’s hands — the Yellow Jackets are second nationally in rushing offense (333.6 yards-per-game average), lead the nation in third-down conversion percentage (57) and are third in time of possession (34:06).
“Actually, a large part of what we do we ran when I was playing in high school,” Johnson, 57, said of his alma mater, Avery County High in North Carolina, where he began his coaching career in 1979 as an offensive coordinator.
“But the whole base of the offense is the same as it was in 1985,” the former Georgia Southern coordinator said. “There are wrinkles here and there, and we’ve gotten more toward running the ball than throwing the ball — dictated by personnel and kind of dictated by what we feel like gives you the best chance to win.
“I’m a firm believer that if you can run the ball and stop the run, you’re going to be in a lot of games.”
Johnson, in his seventh year with the Yellow Jackets (57-35) and 18th year as a head coach (164-74), has led Football Bowl Subdivision teams Navy and now Georgia Tech to a combined 12 consecutive bowl games.
The Yellow Jackets have had six winning seasons in seven years under Johnson. This season, the Jackets reeled off five consecutive wins, lost in succession to Duke and at North Carolina, then won another five in a row before falling 37-35 to defending national champion Florida State on Dec.6 in the ACC title game.
Clearly, the high point of the season came on Nov.28, when the Yellow Jackets defeated then-No.8 Georgia 30-24 in overtime for the “Governor’s Cup.”
It was the first time since 2008 that Georgia Tech prevailed in the 109th edition of the in-state rivalry dubbed “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate.”
Harrison Butker kicked a career-long 53-yard field goal on the final play of regulation, and D.J. White had an interception in overtime to preserve the win.
In the locker room, as seen on YouTube, Johnson was jubilant and uncharacteristically animated.
“He’s a Georgia grad!” a Yellow Jacket playfully shouts as Gov. Nathan Deal gets ready to present the trophy.
“I’m Mercer. I’m neutral,” replies Deal, to laughter.
Suddenly, Johnson, a smile as uncharacteristically wide as the holes his offensive line regularly create, yelled, “Hey! Not in here you’re not!”
His players, who repeatedly chanted, “We’re the state champ!” that day, have one more task Wednesday night.
“At the beginning of the season, we established some goals, and this is where we wanted to be sitting at the end of the year — this or the playoffs,” said 6-1, 218-pound senior Zach Laskey, a “B-back” who has 788 rushing yards and team-leading nine touchdowns in 10 games. “We’ve been fortunate enough to get here, now we’ve got to seal the deal.”
Laskey and the Yellow Jackets will go against a Mississippi State run defense that ranks 25th (126.5 yards per game allowed) and scoring defense that ranks ninth (19.4 yards allowed). But Mullen, who has faced Georgia Tech once, losing 42-31 in 2009, knows that just because a team is predictable, doesn’t mean it’s easy to defeat.
Johnson is “so versed within his offense,” Mullen said, that he knows just what to call in every situation.
“Even though you know what they’re going to do and how they’re doing it,” Mullen said, “he understands the whys, so every time you make an adjustment, he has an adjustment for your adjustment.”
Johnson said Tuesday that the matter of winning isn’t necessarily predicated on his offensive proficiency.
“I learned a long time ago in coaching, it’s not what I know,” he said, “it’s what the players know. I can have all the answers when we go out there to play, but if they don’t understand when to run what play or how to execute it, it really doesn’t matter.”