Coach's Mid-life crisis: restoring respectability

Navy: A proven winner, new coach Paul Johnson enlists to right a sunken football ship.

August 28, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

It's nearly 100 degrees outside, but Paul Johnson is burning up for an entirely different reason.

"J.P.!" Johnson yells, bringing a passing drill to a dead halt. "Why are you running toward the defenders after you catch the ball instead of away from them? Tell me, is it because you're a glutton for punishment?"

"No sir," answers J.P. Blecksmith, a senior wide receiver.

"Because if you are, I would suggest you join the Marines where you can run up hills instead," Johnson says. "Take the ball upfield when you catch it!"

"Yes sir," Blecksmith says.

The exchange is a typical one these days in Annapolis, as Johnson is preparing Navy's football team for its opener Saturday against SMU. There is anger, sarcasm and humor in the voice of the Midshipmen's first-year head coach, but perhaps most importantly, there is instruction. Paul Johnson isn't here to make friends, he's here to win. And if there is one thing Johnson knows how to do, it's win.

"I don't worry about guys liking me," says Johnson, 45. "I think you have to just try to do what's best for the team. If the players like you or they hate you -- as long you can get them to play -- it doesn't matter."

What does matter to Johnson is returning the Navy program to respectability. He is liked by his players, but more importantly, he is already respected. Teaching those players to win, however, will be no small feat. The Midshipmen are 1-20 over the past two seasons, their lone win coming in 2000 against Army, 30-28.

And while Navy was competitive in several of its games in 2001, the Mids were just as often unfocused, disorganized and outmatched. Navy's defense was, statistically, one of the five worst in the country. Coach Charlie Weatherbie was fired after seven games, and defensive coordinator Rick Lantz oversaw the final three losses to end Navy's worst season ever.

None of that, of course, matters to the new sheriff in town. When Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk started to put together a list of coaches, Johnson's name quickly rose to the top. In six years at Georgia Southern, he went 62-10, and he won the Division I-AA national championship in 1999 and 2000.

Military stripes, too

But perhaps even more important, Johnson had shown he could win despite the academy's strict academic and military requirements. In 1995 and '96, he served as offensive coordinator under Weatherbie, and his spread-option offense broke all kinds of school records. In 1996, Johnson's offense finished fifth in the country by averaging 283.6 rushing yards a game, and Navy went 9-3, its first winning season since 1982.

"My coaching philosophy is simple," Johnson says. "There are three factors you need to be successful. One, you have to have knowledge. The players have to believe you know what you're talking about. Two, they've got to be a little bit afraid of you, about what might happen if they don't listen to you. And three, they have to care enough about you or each other that they'll play hard.

"I think you can survive if you've got one of the three. I think you can be good if you've got two of them. But if you get all three, you can be great. And that's what I'm shooting for."

It's been a long and somewhat nomadic journey for Johnson, but never has he wanted to do anything with his life but coach football. Growing up in tiny Newland, N.C., Johnson realized early there was no NFL career in his future. There wasn't even a college career, actually. He bounced around from position to position in high school. But the subtle nuances of teaching others how to block, throw and tackle appealed to him.

"When I graduated high school, I thought, `OK, how can I stay around the game?' " Johnson says. "I knew I wanted to coach. So I went off to college [at Western Carolina], but when I graduated I went back to my high school and was lucky enough to get a job right away as the offensive coordinator. My only goal then was to be the head coach at my high school."

Blue Hawaii

Things progressed much more quickly than that, however. In 1983, he was offered a job as defensive line coach at Georgia Southern. It paid less than just about every high school job he was offered, so he said he wasn't interested.

"My wife [Susan] actually talked me into it," Johnson says. "She told me, `You can always go get another high school job, but if you don't take this, you'll wonder what it might have been like the rest of your life.' It made sense."

It wasn't long before Johnson became the Eagles' offensive coordinator, and Georgia Southern won back-to-back I-AA titles in 1985-86. Life was good.

"One day I get a call out of the blue from Bob Wagner, the coach at the University of Hawaii," Johnson says. "He says, `I've seen your team play a couple times and I want you to be my offensive coordinator.' I told him no, and I really thought it was one of my buddies just messing with me. But he kept at it, saying `Why don't you fly out here? Just come take a look.' "

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