Supposedly, Year Three’s the Best
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 23, 2010
Georgia Tech enters the 2010 season with a bullseye on its back, the logical result of last fall’s A.C.C. title and B.C.S. bowl berth. Additional pressure will come from the loss of several key starters on either side of the ball: Jonathan Dwyer, Derrick Morgan, Morgan Burnett, and so on. The rest of the A.C.C. surely recalls what the Yellow Jackets have accomplished over Paul Johnson’s first two years in charge of the program: 20 wins, a conference title, consistent improvement in his spread option offense. What should worry the rest of the A.C.C. is this: at each of his two previous stops, Johnson-led teams saved their best for year three.
Johnson’s head coaching career began in 1997, when he left a two-year stint as Navy’s offensive coordinator to take the top position at Georgia Southern, a proud F.C.S. program suffering a downturn. The Eagles had slipped to 4-7 in 1996, the year prior to Johnson’s arrival; that was the school’s lowest output since the reformation of its football program n 1982.
His impact was immediate: from 4-7 in 1996 to a 10-3, the second-highest total for a first-year coach in Georgia Southern history. As with the Yellow Jackets, there was no learning curve, no period of readjustment for the offense. The spread offense — a philosophy honed over a decade spent at both Hawaii and Navy — went in on day one. And the results, when held against Georgia Southern’s recent past, were noteworthy: 423 points scored, at that point the sixth-most in school history and a 198-point improvement over 1996.
As one would expect, the Eagles took another significant step forward in 1998. That fall, in Georgia Southern’s 14-1 finish, the Eagles scored a then-school record 654 points — a 241-point improvement, albeit in two more games, over 1997. Then came 1999: fewer wins, perhaps, yet continued progression on the offensive side of the ball. That fall saw Georgia Southern win only 13 games — only 13 — yet again shatter the school record for scoring. The Eagles scored 747 points — just shy of 50 points per game. Most importantly, Georgia Southern won the F.C.S. — then Division I-AA, of course — national championship, the first of two straight.
Johnson returned to Navy in 2002, replacing the man — Charlie Weatherbie — that hired him to run the offense in 1995. Johnson was a very logical choice for the Mids: the best year of the Weatherbie era, after all, came when Johnson was calling the shots offensively. Initial results were disappointing, as Navy finished 2-10 in Johnson’s debut season.
That was still a two-win improvement over Navy’s winless 2001 campaign; the Mids also scored roughly a touchdown more per game than in 2000, though the defense was, to that point, the worst in school history. The year was defined by a few narrow losses, such as those single-digit setbacks to Northwestern, Rice, Notre Dame and Wake Forest. Most of all, however, Johnson’s debut campaign was defined by a 58-12 win over Army in the season finale, a win that propelled Navy into the off-season on a very high note.
An eight-win 2003 followed, a year that culminated in only Navy’s second bowl trip since 1982. Year three? Try 10-2, Navy’s first double-digit-win season of the modern era. The season included three wins over B.C.S. conference opposition: Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Rutgers. So not quite the murderer’s row; nevertheless, three wins over B.C.S. conference opposition only three years removed from a winless season. The regular season ended with Navy’s second consecutive Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
So here’s where the doubters lost me: the offense rolled at Georgia Southern, it rolled at Navy, it’s rolling at Georgia Tech. There should be no room for doubt, in my opinion. History is on Tech’s side in this argument; history has shown that the offense works. History has shown that how often an opponent sees it — Clemson saw it twice in three months — has little bearing on its success on defense. What else has history shown? That year three is when Johnson-coached teams take the next step.
Tags: Georgia Tech, Paul Johnson
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