Georgia Tech wrapped up its regular season with a loss in the Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate rivalry game, 45-21, to Georgia in Athens. The loss puts Tech at 7-5 on the season, with continued questions surrounding Paul Johnson’s future.
Could he opt to step down after the season? Would that be best for both parties? Should Tech make a move itself? Should he make some changes and get another year?
With Tech fans looking over to the booming success Kirby Smart is having in Athens, it’s easy to ask why a school in Atlanta can’t contend more regularly, the kind of thing that’s been said more or less for the last half-decade about the Jackets.
Firing Johnson or hoping he retires could make some sense, but it might not be simple.
Why a change might be nice
The Jackets have usually only been about average throughout his tenure.
When you think of ACC powers during his time, Clemson and Florida State lead the way, kind of followed by everybody else, depending on the year. Johnson’s had two excellent seasons, but they appear to be outliers. In his 11 seasons, seven have come with eight wins or fewer.
Could some younger blood win the ACC Coastal semi-regularly? Perhaps. 7-5 Pitt won it in 2018, after all.
But things have been worse in his past few years.
In the 2018 preview for Georgia Tech, Bill Connelly pointed out that Tech played above the ACC average in four of Johnson’s first seven seasons. In the past three, they didn’t. In 2018, Tech is just plain average in general, ranking No. 63 in S&P+ out of 130 FBS teams.
In 2018, Tech’s offensive S&P+ ranking is 28. That’s not surprising, considering they’ve been good offensively throughout Johnson’s tenure. The flexbone remains effective and unique among Power 5 programs, “The Offense You Need More Than A Week To Prepare For.”
However, defensively, their S&P+ ranking is 100. A bad defense is also par for the course under Johnson. Part of that likely has to do with the fact that they rarely get to practice against the more traditional offenses that they’ll see week to week.
The offense would get a refresher that it might need.
Johnson’s option-heavy, flexbone spread has almost always been either good or fine. He’s shown that it can beat almost anybody, and he’s done that with lesser recruiting. So if you fire Johnson, you’re assuming that the offense will improve as you move to one that’s a bit more conventional and can help you recruit better players.
The Jackets would likely evolve their offense no matter the hire, perhaps with a transition year or two, but every offense uses option plays these days anyway.
It wouldn’t cost Georgia Tech a lot to move on.
Some universities get stuck with a coach because his buyout is ridiculous ridiculous, but that’s not the case for Johnson.
It is further agreed that if the Association terminates this contract without cause, the Association shall also pay Coach, as liquidated damages, the sum of One Million Dollars ($1,000,000) for each of the 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons or pro rata portion thereof remaining on the contract.
If Johnson is fired before next season, he’ll get $2 million to cover the 2019 and 2020 seasons. That’s quite doable, when somebody like Bobby Petrino’s could be upwards of $14 million.
Why Johnson might still be the best *option* for now
The offense probably won’t get much better without him, even if talent improves.
His best year came in 2014, when the team’s offensive S&P+ ranking was No. 4 and they beat Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.
Other than that, Johnson’s had a dash of top-20 offensive S&P+ finishes and a few in the 30s. By and large, Tech’s done well with the underdog offense.
If Tech is going to have issues bringing in lots of elite recruits — and, due to academic challenges, it probably always will — it might as well keep a unique offense, even if it moves away from the pure flexbone.
Tech’s getting what it’s paying for: slightly above average.
If you’re firing Johnson because the school isn’t pulling four- and five-star recruits, four- and five-star money has to go into the program. Georgia Tech’s 2017 athletic revenue was 51st among FBS public schools. The $81 million number was in the neighborhood of Oregon State, Washington State, UConn, and Cincinnati.
Johnson brought up the university’s commitment in recent years:
If you want to fit in the upper echelon then clearly we’re going to have to do a good job of raising money and upping our budget and upping our facilities and upping everything around our football program to be comparable with the teams you want to compete with. It’s like I tell our guys every day, you can have expectations all you want, but if you don’t have a commitment to reach those expectations, it doesn’t do any good.
Everybody says, ‘Georgia Tech doesn’t recruit 4- and 5-star kids’, which is a joke. We try to recruit them just like everybody else. But, you’ve got to have the facilities to match up, you’ve got the have the fan support, you’ve got to have all the other things.
Two years later, Tech did announce plans to upgrade facilities, including the football locker room.
Firing Johnson sounds like a simple solution, especially when lots of young coaches are interested in the program (and they are). However, that doesn’t automatically turn into instant big wins.
The financial situation suggests to coaches that Tech is going to lag at paying assistants. At that, Tech came in seventh of eight reporting ACC schools in 2015.
Set aside the old national titles, and Johnson is roughly performing at Tech’s historical norm.
Since leaving the SEC in the ‘60s, Georgia Tech has usually been slightly above average, outside of special years like 1990.
Johnson usually has the Jackets in a bowl, is 2-3 over the last five years against Georgia, has won the ACC once, had GT’s second highest-ranked season since 1966, and has won a big bowl.
A new coach can’t magically make lots of five-stars want to become engineers.
Georgia Tech is a great academic institution in a big Southern city, which is a selling point for lots of players, but Tech’s specific challenges have long been used against the Jackets in recruiting. There have been stories for decades about opposing coaches walking into a player’s living room and slamming a big calculus book down on the table.
Johnson’s recruiting classes should probably be better than they have been. But how much better is one of GT’s biggest questions.