2016 Purdue Football Coaching Search: Paul Johnson
Candidate Tier #3
Category: Old, Grumpy, Risky, Hates Mike Bobinski Already
Who Is He?
Paul Johnson is (checks the news) currently the head coach at Georgia Tech. He’s in his ninth season in charge of the Yellow Jackets and in his 20th season as a head coach overall: prior to his stint in Atlanta, he coached at Navy for six years, and prior to that, he spent five years at Georgia Southern when they were I-AA, going 14-3 in the playoffs with the Eagles and winning the 1999 and 2000 I-AA championships with them.
He might possibly become available because last year was the second-worst season of his career. Georgia Tech went 1-7 in ACC play (previously he’d never been worse than 4-4) and 3-9 overall (his only worse record was 2-10 his first year at Navy; two years later the Midshipmen were 10-2 and won the Emerald Bowl).
While Tech did make the ACC title game in 2014 and went on to win the Orange Bowl, another rough season, combined with the general “been here too long” feeling that administrations frequently have about coaches, could mean that Johnson will be looking for a new job about the same time his old boss at Tech will be looking for a new coach.
Why would he be successful at Purdue?
This is a guy who coached Navy to a 10-win season, a guy who got Georgia Tech to two Orange Bowls and won one. He runs the triple option, which is something nobody likes to face, remember? He has experience recruiting at a second-tier school in a P5 conference that doesn’t spend a lot of money on football, and at a school in a state that has a football-crazy school to compete with.
He’s been pretty successful at every stop, and while the ACC isn’t the Big Tenteen, there have been years when it did break that direction: for example, in 2014, three of the four ACC top-25 teams at season’s end were in the other division. (I’m not even going to pretend I understand who’s in the Atlantic and who’s in the Coastal or why.)
Why could he flop at Purdue?
Well, let’s see.
His relationship with Bobinski showed signs of strain before the latter departed for Purdue; if that’s actually what was going on, that could repeat itself in West Lafayette whether or not Johnson was successful here. Johnson’s 59, so pretty close to the age where a lot of coaches are ready to retire, and building a solid program at Purdue might not be the way he wants to spend his last years, especially if it means going through the initial stages of teaching the triple option to a lot of kids who’ve never run it before.
The successful years he had at Georgia Tech were in perhaps the weakest of the Power 5 conferences, usually in a division with at most one ranked team, and of course at Navy he faced even fewer quality opponents, so there’s no guarantee he could succeed in a conference with more good teams. In fact, his career at Tech closely parallels Tiller’s at Purdue, with the exception of the Rose Bowl, and it’s possible that Purdue wouldn’t have gone if the Big Ten had had divisions and a title game at the time. (Johnson has won four Coastal Division titles, but never won an ACC title.)
If his continued success depends on defenses not figuring out the triple option, in part because they don’t see it often, and if he moves to a conference with better defenses and better DCs, and most teams then see it once a year, will it still be effective? Finally, he did more of a reloading job at Georgia Tech than a rebuilding job, and the rebuild at Navy was in a much easier situation. It’s not hard to imagine Johnson getting the flexbone working just in time to see Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin figure out how to make it difficult to run.
Would he come to Purdue?
If Georgia Tech doesn’t fire him, absolutely not. He’s making about $2.9M this season, and that will slowly increase to about $3.25M in 2020, the last year of his current deal. That doesn’t include bonuses for bowl games and ACC titles. Would Bobinski offer Johnson guaranteed money to beat his Tech deal (which guarantees his 2016 and 2017 salaries, plus $1M from each of the three remaining seasons), especially after the Hazell fiasco? It seems more likely that if that were to happen, the offer would go to a coach with more of a possible future in West Lafayette.
Even if Tech does fire him at a time that makes him available to the Boilers – which is no guarantee – it’s hard to imagine Johnson wanting this kind of challenge at this point in his career under an AD who wasn’t exactly turning things around in Atlanta. If he doesn’t mind a cut in pay, he might actually be better off taking a MAC or C-USA job and shooting for a Group of 5 playoff bid there; that’s feasible in a four-year span, perhaps moreso than seeing Johnson guide the Boilers past Nebraska, Wisconsin and others to a division title.