ATLANTA — Paul Johnson has reached rarified territory at Georgia Tech — really, for any college football coach these days — so it seemed appropriate to ask what might be done to recognize the accomplishment.
Never one to pass up the opportunity at a tongue-firmly-in-cheek response, Johnson pounced.
“They gave me a Rolex,” he said, managing to suppress a smile. “Didn’t you hear? Georgia Tech gives a Rolex to everyone who works for them for 10 years.”
As is so often the case with the coach known as “PJ,” it’s not that easy to ascertain the line between serious and snarky.
But one thing’s for sure: Johnson has done things his way heading into his 10th season as the Yellow Jackets’ coach.
From an old-fashioned, triple-option offense that many still deride as a gimmick unworthy of a major-conference school to a sometimes-abrasive personality that can rub folks the wrong way, Johnson refused to be dissuaded from his core beliefs or bend to those who wish he’d put a bit of a filter on whatever is running through his mind.
Along the way, he’s become only the fourth coach in Georgia Tech history to make it to a 10th season. The other three: College Football Hall of Famers John Heisman, Bill Alexander and Bobby Dodd.
“Ten years is a long time to be anywhere,” said Johnson, who recently turned 60.
He and Duke’s David Cutcliffe have been at their current schools longer than any other head coaches in the Atlantic Coast Conference — both just ahead of Dabo Swinney at reigning national champion Clemson. Only a handful of coaches around the nation have managed to stay in one place that long.
“I’m the longest-tenured coach in the ACC. So that right there tells you about the profession,” Johnson said. “I think the only guy who’s been at his school longer than me in the SEC is Coach Saban,” he added, neatly dropping in a reference to Alabama’s Nick Saban, perhaps the best coach in college football history.
In many ways, Johnson is a perfect fit for Georgia Tech, a school that has long languished in the shadow of state rival Georgia and struggles to land the sort of five-star recruits that flock to powerhouse programs like Saban’s Crimson Tide.
Not to worry.
Johnson relishes the underdog role and brushes off the need to land big-name players, who usually don’t fit into what he’s trying to do offensively. He needs a quarterback who can run the ball, make quick decisions in the option, take a pounding and hit the occasional big passing play — not the sort of skills required of those looking to move on to the NFL.
For the most part, that formula has worked out just fine for the Yellow Jackets. Over his first nine seasons, Johnson’s teams have played in three ACC championship games and a pair of Orange Bowls (though his lone ACC title, in 2009, had to be vacated because of what the NCAA said was the school’s failure to fully cooperate in an investigation of a player who took a few hundred dollars’ worth of clothing from someone with ties to an agent).
Last season was the fourth time the Yellow Jackets have won at least nine games.
“I don’t think we’ve got to apologize for what we’ve done here the last 10 years,” Johnson said. “I think it’s been pretty good.”
The biggest stumble came in 2015, a 3-9 debacle that quickly raised doubts about his future.
A shaky relationship with then-athletic director Mike Bobinski didn’t help matters.
“At times, I felt like I was maybe on my own,” Johnson said with typical candor. “People outside our program, I think, appreciate our program better than the people inside our program.”
He seems to have a much stronger relationship with the current athletic director, Todd Stansbury, who took over from Bobinski last year and quickly made it clear he was pleased with Johnson’s stewardship of the football team.
But the coach, always on the defense against those who believe Georgia Tech needs a more up-to-date offense, seems a bit wary of praise.
“As long as you win on Saturday, everything’s great,” he said. “Just don’t lose one. Then it’s like you forgot everything you knew, you’re not very smart, and people have caught up with you.”
After a strong finish to 2016, including an upset of Georgia between the hedges, Georgia Tech opens the season with a Monday night matchup against Tennessee at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new $1.5 billion facility in downtown Atlanta. There are a couple of big holes to fill: three-year starting quarterback Justin Thomas is gone, and leading rusher Dedrick Mills was kicked off the team a couple of weeks ago for violating athletic department rules.
No matter who’s on the field, Tennessee offensive coordinator Larry Scott knows it won’t look much different than the Georgia Tech teams he went against at Miami, where he was an assistant coach and interim head coach.
“They are what they are. It’s not cute. They don’t bend. They don’t break,” Scott said. “Obviously they’ve got a strong program philosophy of how they play football as a whole. Each and every time you face them or go up against them, it is what it is. There’s never any variation or a whole lot of change.”
Johnson balks a bit at the perception that he’s unwilling to change.
Maybe when it comes to his offense.
But there’s so much more to coaching that calling plays on Saturday.
“It’s a lot different than it was when I first started coaching, in about every way possible, from the athletes involved to the media attention to the compensation,” Johnson said. “You have to be able to adjust.”
Adjust enough, and they’ll let you hang around for a decade.
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee contributed to this report.