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Georgia Tech’s Paul Johnson retires, ending an influential coaching career

The option head coach ends an innovative run.

Georgia Tech v Georgia Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson is retiring, sources told SB Nation and the school confirmed later Wednesday afternoon. He’ll coach Tech through its bowl game.

The decision comes just a few days after Georgia Tech’s 45-21 loss to rival Georgia, which brought the Yellow Jackets to 7-5 on the season.

ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg reported Wednesday afternoon that Los Angeles Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is a “top candidate,” and that Clemson OC Tony Elliott is also in the mix.

Johnson, 61, just finished his 11th season as Georgia Tech’s head coach.

Overall, Johnson is 83-59, making him the school’s fourth winningest head coach in program history. His best seasons in Atlanta came in 2009 and 2014.

Over time, GT has averaged a slightly above-average 7.5 wins per season. The Yellow Jackets have digressed over the last few seasons under Johnson, however.

In the team’s 2018 preview, Bill Connelly pointed out that Tech played above the ACC average in four of Johnson’s first seven seasons. In the past three, they hadn’t.

In 2018, Tech is just plain average in general, ranking No. 63 in S&P+ out of 130 FBS teams. Tech’s Off. 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, they rank just 100th. 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.

Still, Johnson’s success is impressive, especially considering his impact with running his option-heavy, flexbone spread.

Two of his former assistants, Jeff Monken and Ken Niumatalolo, have found consistent success at Army and Navy, respectively. And while they’ve done that elsewhere, Johnson’s continued to win a lot of games with a scheme he’s preached forever. The same tactics that helped his Navy team produce football’s longest drive ever 14 years ago also let Johnson’s Yellow Jackets deliver blowouts of epic proportions to ACC teams this year.

Johnson will go down in history as defying the narrative that the option can’t be successful in the modern era. And he’s been defying that narrative for quite a while. He was Georgia Southern’s offensive coordinator when the Eagles won the FCS (then 1-AA) national titles in 1985 and 1986, and after stints at Hawaii and Navy, he won the national title as Georgia Southern’s head coach in 1999 and 2000.

That earned him a shot at Navy’s head coaching job. The Midshipmen had been to just one bowl in 20 years before Johnson took over, and under first Johnson and then Niumatalolo, they’ve been to 14 in the last 16 seasons. They have twice finished ranked in the AP poll. Monken, meanwhile, has won 27 games and counting over the last three seasons after taking over in West Point in 2014.

Defense may have remained an issue for Johnson during his Tech stint, but the Yellow Jackets constantly figured out ways to move the ball like a four-star offense with mostly three-star recruits.

Capital One Orange Bowl - Mississippi State v Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech thumped Mississippi State in the 2014 Orange Bowl to finish 11-3 and No. 8 in the AP poll.
Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images

Our Georgia Tech blog, From The Rumble Seat, just wanted to thank Johnson:

You made a bunch of teams we play annually schedule other option teams to just try and get a practice in against your offense. They’re now stuck with those teams on their schedule for coming years. We thank you for that also.

We thank you for a couple Orange Bowls, going 1-2 in ACC Championship games, finishing first or second in our division 7 times, and 3 really memorable wins against that team to the east.

We thank you for contributing to Lane Kiffin’s firing from USC. We thank you for putting up with an athletic director who totally hamstrung you in almost every way for much of your time here before Stansbury was hired. We thank you for galvanizing the athletic department into make a bigger commitment to football in order to help set your successor up for, well, success. We thank you for fighting for locker room renovations and Adidas. We thank you for putting up with the food at Three Dollar Cafe every week for your call-in show.

We also thank you for just putting up with your call-in show.

As far as replacements go, Georgia Tech might have to commit financially to the football program a bit more aggressively.

Georgia Tech’s 2017 athletic revenue was 51st among public FBS schools, in the neighborhood of programs like Oregon State, Washington State, UConn, and Cincinnati. In a city like Atlanta, where blue-chip recruits are pretty easy to get to, the job will be an attractive option for a lot of coaches.

The conventional wisdom is that if Tech’s decision makers wish to truly devote financial resources to the program, it could wake up like a sleeping giant similar to the way Clemson once woke up. Georgia is, after all, a tremendous recruiting state, now in a tier with California, Texas, and Florida.

The University of Georgia is a different type of program than its rival, with different resources and commitment to football (not to mention different academic standards), but it’s hard to look at how quickly Kirby Smart built a recruiting Death Star in Athens and wonder what the rival Yellow Jackets could do if they went away from the option and into a more modern offensive system.

The time was always coming for Tech to figure out what it wants to be, and now it has arrived.