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Righting The Ship

August 21, 2007

How Paul Johnson turned the Navy football program around

By Kent Baker
The Naval Academy on Dec. 9, 2001 introduced a new head football coach whose mission was to restore dignity to a program that had skidded into an unprecedented abyss during the preceding two seasons with a 1-20 record.

During the press conference at Alumni Hall, Paul Johnson and a slew of Navy officials and supporters were sporting T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan for his program, “Expect To Win.”

 (Courtesy of U.S. Naval Academy)

One year later, following a 2-10 record in the first season of his regime, the coach managed to parry the initial hoopla with the self-deprecating phrase: "Expect Two Wins."

The amusing twist on the words was Johnson's way of easing the pain. Inside, he was hurting badly.

"It was brutal. I never had a year like that anywhere," he said. "My daughter, Kaitlyn, could barely remember 1995 and 1996 [when Johnson was the offensive coordinator at Navy]. All she knew was Georgia Southern, and she thought we were supposed to win every week. After we won the opener, we went 10 games without winning again, and I'd get in the car after a game and she'd be bawling."

Paul Johnson  (Courtesy of U.S. Naval Academy)

But Kaitlyn Johnson hasn't had much occasion for tears since. In the last four years, the Midshipmen have surged to a 35-15 record under Johnson, won a school-record four consecutive Commander in Chief's Trophies by going 8-0 against rivals Air Force and Army and made four straight trips to bowl games, a feat that had never before been accomplished at Navy.

In less than two years, the Midshipmen went from winless to bowl-game status, only the sixth team in history to achieve that.

Not a bad record for a man who grew up in a burg of less than 1,000 people in the mountains of North Carolina, never played college football, directs an offense that in today's pro-preparatory game is widely considered to be antiquated and was advised by many of his colleagues that it wasn't possible to win at Navy.

Johnson never believed he couldn't be successful in Annapolis, saying at the time, "I wouldn't have taken the job if I did." He has conclusively proved that his instincts were correct.

Another who was convinced he was the right man for the turnaround was athletic director Chet Gladchuk, who jettisoned Charlie Weatherbie three games before the nightmarish 2001 season ended. He aggressively sought Johnson, whose ledger at Division I-AA Georgia Southern was impeccable with a 62-10 record, including an amazing 52 victories over four-straight seasons, two national championships and a runner-up finish, 31 All-American players and 389 team and individual records.

"He had a proven track record, was the national coach of the year, was a master of the triple option and he had worked at Navy," Gladchuk said. "When you added everything up, he was the most logical choice for the job."

It's difficult to pinpoint just when Johnson's applications began to take hold, but there were signs of a coming renaissance even during his daughter’s miserable 2002 experience.

Navy pushed Notre Dame, a team it hasn't beaten since 1963, to the limit before losing, 30-23. After reaching the nadir in a 38-0 pasting from Connecticut at home, the Midshipmen were beaten by a field goal at Wake Forest.

"I guess the last game of that first season was probably the turning point," said Craig Candeto, the first of four different quarterbacks to lead Navy to bowls during Johnson's tenure. "But there were hints that we were turning it around before that through how we played some good teams tough. Then we took our A-game in against Army, and from that point on, we knew we could be a good football team. The attitude just carried over from there."

In that historic game, the Midshipmen rolled to a 58-12 thumping with Candeto scoring a record six touchdowns at Giants Stadium.

Johnson feels the team turned the corner in the fifth game of the next season, a 28-25 upset of nationally-ranked Air Force at FedEx Field in Landover that broke the Falcons' long stranglehold on the three-academy service series.

"I think it was a gradual process, but since that game, we haven't lost to another academy, and they haven't won too many," the coach said.

In 2004, Johnson was named the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year after that Navy team equaled the school record with 10 regular-season wins, capping it off with Johnson’s first postseason victory, 34-19, over New Mexico in the Emerald Bowl. That game graphically illustrated the potency of the Johnson triple option; the Midshipmen held the ball for an incredible 26 plays and nearly 14 and a half minutes on their final serious drive, both NCAA records, before kicking a field goal.

So what makes him so effective, and how did he approach the makeover?

"He's done a good job of recruiting, and he knows how to use the players he gets," said Navy's most famous player, 1963 Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach, who later guided the Dallas Cowboys to two Super Bowl titles. "Paul is a really good X's and O's guy, and his teams are always well prepared. He really knows how to use that system, and he gets the kind of players who can make it work.

"Football is not exactly what the academy is about, but it's important for the spirit there. They like to be proud of the athletic teams. It's a tribute to Paul and his staff that they've brought a lot of excitement back by making Navy very competitive in Division I-A."
Staubach will toss the coin when the Midshipmen open the season in Philadelphia against Temple Aug. 31.

Johnson's steadfast belief in his offense goes way, way back

"When you're playing for him you don't realize how great of a football mind he has," said Tracy Ham, who was the Georgia Southern quarterback when Johnson was the offensive coordinator in the ’80s. "When you get older, you see how much knowledge he has. He knows what he wants to do and never leaves anything on the sidelines. And he's one of the great game-day coaches."

Georgia Southern won two national titles while they teamed, and Johnson's offense, directed by Ham, set 75 school records. Ham later had an outstanding career in the Canadian Football League, including two seasons here with the Baltimore Stallions. When he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame this summer, Johnson was there.

"He's special to me," Ham said. "He knows what it takes to get the most out of players. A lot of people fear what he does. And he's still running the same stuff now he was then."
Ham is one of a host of Georgia Southern players who prepped under Johnson and advanced to the pros. Probably the most-recognized current player is Chicago Bears running back Adrian Peterson, who rushed for 6,736 yards as a collegian, the most in NCAA Division I history.

Perhaps Johnson's greatest asset is his uncanny ability to adjust during a game -- even from play to play.

"He's a very smart man," said assistant head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who quarterbacked at Hawaii under Johnson and has been on his staff for six years. "He thinks fast on his feet, and I believe that's his greatest strength. He's been doing this a long time, and there's nothing he hasn't seen. People try to throw new wrinkles at him, and he adjusts so fast. I don't know if anybody is better at game management."

Another who served as the Hawaii quarterback and has coached with Johnson for nine years, Ivin Jasper, agreed.

"Even we sometimes don't know what he's going to call,” he said. “But he knows when and where to do it."

Johnson's staff is virtually intact. The only member who departed is Kevin Kelly, who took a head job at Georgetown. He works coaches and players hard, but they appreciate the time off he allows and that he stands up for them.

"He's always been right up front with everyone, telling you exactly what he thinks," Jasper said. "I think kids respond to that."

"He's demanding, but always forthright," Niumatalolo said. "He sets the standards high, but he also gives us the time to get refreshed. You're willing to work hard for someone like that. He's very intense and competitive, but low key off the field."

"Good enough is never good enough," Candeto said. "He's never satisfied and is a no-nonsense coach. I remember one March we were out there in 40-degree weather, and he ran us around for an hour and a half yelling at us. He expects everything you've got, and you can't fault the results."

Johnson met his wife Susan while attending Western Carolina.

"Our life revolves around football week to week," she said. "I wouldn't call myself a fan except for the team that Paul coaches. Our daughter is the one who's really interested in what's going on."

Oddly enough, while at Western Carolina, Johnson was better at basketball than football and played the former. Johnson, who has a master's degree in health and physical education, relaxes with golf and likes to bet the horses, although time restraints often prevent him from keeping in touch with their performances or attending the races.

 (Courtesy of U.S. Naval Academy)

"What I really enjoy is those early games we have," he said. "I like to go home after we're done, take off my shoes, throw on a pair of shorts, get a clicker and watch a zillion games on television. It's just fun to watch them when you don't have to care about wins and losses."

His gambling instincts show up on the field. So devoutly does he believe in his offense that he often shuns punts to try for fourth-down yardage, depending on the game situation. Even in his own territory on occasion he will shun kicking.

In a 51-30 rout of Colorado State at the Poinsettia Bowl two years ago, the local papers were full of references to the fact that Navy had only three plays, the fullback dive, the quarterback keeper and the slotback pitch. So on the first play from scrimmage, Johnson directed slot, Reggie Campbell, to go deep down the middle and the result was a 55-yard touchdown pass-run.

He had noticed the opposing safety flying up to support the run defense and thought he could catch him out of position.

"What we did was send them a message," he said. "Even if we don't get a touchdown, I think that safety would have gotten the message."

His homespun sayings are a conversation piece around the yard, the Navy campus.

"I really don't know if we understand what he's saying sometimes," said David Mahoney, a linebacker who graduated last spring and is now a coach at the Naval Academy Preparatory School. "But I know he changed the whole mentality and gained the confidence of the players. Everybody was willing to work to put in the effort he expected."

Because of his success, Johnson's name has surfaced whenever an opening crops up at schools with big-time football programs. The latest search was by North Carolina State, and his candidacy was considered the most serious to date before Tom O'Brien entered the picture and decided to leave Boston College.

His coaches and former players answer a resounding "yes" as to whether Johnson's offense would transfer to a program that recruits players with professional aspirations. Navy, due to the military commitment after graduation, the academic standards and the discipline required, must scramble to find sleepers, overachievers and service-oriented personnel to combat them.

"He can tweak that offense a little to adjust," Candeto said. "He's got an answer for everything it seems. We'd like him to stay at Navy the rest of his career, but they're going to be chasing him for the next few years."

The coach has an excellent deal at Navy -- commensurate with that of head coaches at Bowl Championship Series contenders. Depending on how the perks above base salary are evaluated, Johnson makes an estimated $1.5 million annually and he has received strong support from Gladchuk and his staff, the administration and the brigade of Midshipmen.

"I think he realizes we're serious about winning football and we made a commitment to Paul in terms of extraordinary facilities, TV exposure, bowl games and so on," said Gladchuk, who added that season ticket sales have risen above 20,000 (a four-fold increase) since Johnson was hired. "Paul is the chief, but a lot of people have put a lot into it."

"If I really wanted to leave here, I could have done it a long time ago," Johnson said. "You never say never, and it needs to be the right fit. I haven't had that. These people have been very good to me, and I'm very thankful. Whenever I took a job, I always felt I'd be in that job for the rest of the time I coached. At the same time, if you don't win enough games ... It's always better to be talked about for other jobs than have people talking about who is going to take your job."

In that regard, Johnson has no current worries. He has always expected to win.

Issue 2.34: August 23, 2007