Despite 7 straight defeats, Johnson not losing patience

Improvement not reflected in record, says Mids coach

College Football

October 31, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

Two months ago, on a warm Texas night in Dallas, Navy's football team was on top of the world.

The Midshipmen had just routed Southern Methodist, 38-7, for their first win in more than a year, and the grin on first-year coach Paul Johnson's face was so big, you could have seen it from Annapolis.

Back home on the yard, Navy officials were arranging an impromptu pep rally to greet the team upon its return, which required getting 2,000 cadets out of bed at 4:30 a.m. With music blaring and blood pumping, the team returned to a hero's welcome.

Hired in December, Johnson and his staff had not yet turned the program around, but they'd done something perhaps more important: They'd given the academy hope. After so many defeats, there was finally something to feel good about again.

Fast-forward to the present, and it's a much different feeling. Seven consecutive losses have brought expectations back down to earth. Though the team is clearly better than it was a year ago, Navy's 51-30 loss to Tulane on Saturday clinched the Mids' fifth straight losing season and their 18th in the past 20 years.

Johnson has insisted throughout the seven-game losing streak that the program did not reach its nadir overnight and so it will not be fixed overnight.

But just how hard is that for Johnson, a fiery competitor, to handle? After all, if Navy loses three more times this season, it would equal the number of losses Johnson had in five years as Georgia Southern's coach. Even though it's important to preach patience, is that enough to keep a successful coach from tearing his hair out?

"It's frustrating, but you have to look for things that lead you to believe things are changing," Johnson said. "Instead of looking at wins and losses, you hope you're changing attitudes.

"At times this year, I think we've played well, but we have to be patient and realistic. ... Everybody wants an immediate fix, but no one knows when things are going to turn around. I know we're working as hard or harder than we've ever worked right now."

Admittedly, Johnson has had to approach coaching differently than he did while at Georgia Southern, where his teams were often the toast of Division I-AA. At Georgia Southern, losing was rare, and so when it did happen, the hurt was evident on the face of every one of Johnson's players.

At Navy, that's not always the case. Some players laugh and joke outside the locker room after defeats, and though Johnson is hesitant to be critical, he acknowledges it is something he has noticed.

"I think we have a lot of kids that really care," Johnson said. "Clearly, it bothers some more than others. I think that's part of rebuilding the program.

"You have to get to the point where it bothers all of them, and we will. I don't think anybody wants to lose, but I think some people want to win a lot more than others.

"There's a point where I guess they have to build a wall or else how would you survive losing every year, and I've tried to understand that, but it's been really hard on our coaching staff because we just came from a program where if you lost two games it was a bad year. ... We haven't handled it very well, but like I said, if you start handling it well I would be worried. I would be worried about myself if it didn't bother me."

Johnson said he'd be kidding himself if he didn't admit that sometimes the frustrations of football follow him home. Every coach experiences his share of restless nights, and he is no different.

"I don't think you can [leave losing at work], and I probably do bring some of it home," Johnson said. "My family is used to winning, too. It's tough on them, but I think families involved with coaching learn to deal with it."

Navy's players, fans and alumni are also adjusting to a coach willing to speak his mind and call it like he sees it. Johnson rarely sugarcoats the situation, which many see as a departure from the style of former coach Charlie Weatherbie.

At times Johnson has praised his team for fighting back, and at others he has questioned its effort. His abrasive analysis has ruffled some feathers inside and outside the program, but he's not about to change for anyone.

"I'm a firm believer in telling the truth," Johnson said. "These are smart kids. They're going to know if you're blowing smoke at them. I hope it means more to them to hear the truth, because if someone was always telling me how great I was, I don't think I'd pay much attention after a while."

Johnson admits that the program is probably more down than he thought when he took the job, but that doesn't mean there haven't been positive signs.

Navy has moved the ball on just about everyone this year, playing a schedule that will likely include six bowls teams.

Recruits currently playing at the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I., have lost only one game, and Johnson said many of them can help the team when they arrive at the academy next season.

He said things will change, but not right away.

"I have one of those jobs where at least 80 percent of the people think they can do it better," Johnson said. "You can care what people say, and you can't let it bother you. You just have to believe in what you're doing and do what you think is right."

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