Johnson's vision is at the heart of Navy football's about-face

November 21, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

A YEAR AGO, Navy football coach Paul Johnson was going through one of the longest seasons in his life. Now, the season is going way too fast.

In less than two full seasons, Johnson has given Navy (6-4) a new schedule, a new attitude, a possible bowl bid and a chance to win the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy. Navy will play host to Central Michigan (3-8) tomorrow, one of two remaining regular-season opponents.

"Last year seemed like 100 years. This year has kind of just gone by," said Johnson, whose team finished 2-10 in 2002. "You could base the improvement on two or three things. We had another year in the system, so we knew what to expect from them and they knew what to expect from us.

"Now, the schedule is better," said Johnson. "I saw improvement at the end of last season. We had a chance to beat Notre Dame and Wake Forest. If you're competitive, you want to play again. It's like playing in a pickup basketball game. If you beat me, I'll ask you to play again. If you barely beat me again, I'm going to say what are you doing tomorrow, let's play again."

You've got to like Johnson, 46. He's just an old-fashioned, competitive country boy from Avery County, N.C., with an affection for country music and a signature offense that has been one of the game's most productive the past two decades.

But he's no genius, no guru. Johnson isn't intrigued by the NFL or another job in the major college ranks.

Golf and horse racing are two of his favorites hobbies, but the man has a deep admiration for the academy.

"You have to admire these kids. They come here and go to school. But they also protect our country and our rights. I've always approached this as do the best you can where you're at, and if it happens, it happens," said Johnson of possible job offers. "This kind of stuff always works itself out."

"I don't have any [misconceptions] about winning a national championship at Navy. I don't think that is going to happen," he said. "But we can be competitive and consistent and have a chance at bowl games every year."

It seems premature to talk about Johnson leaving. After all, it's only been about two years, and the Mids could end up at .500 this year. But to understand where the Mids are headed, you have to know where Johnson came from. As the Georgia Southern coach from 1997 through 2001, he posted a 62-10 record, winning two straight I-AA national championships and five straight Southern Conference titles.

As an offensive coordinator at the University of Hawaii, Georgia Southern and Navy (1995 and 1996), his teams always scored plenty of points and set numerous school records. It's happening again at Navy.

The Mids have already doubled their amount of wins the previous three years combined. Navy is averaging 302.4 yards rushing, second and just one yard behind No. 1 Minnesota. This with the youngest team in school history with 18 freshmen dressing - 11 playing.

The Mids apparently believe in Johnson.

"These guys wanted to win. They have bought into the system," said Johnson. "They worked their butts off in the offseason. They were committed to winning."

Johnson also got Navy officials to honor a previous commitment. Since George Welsh left as coach of Navy after the 1981 season, the gap had grown between the Mids and some of the regular opponents that included Georgia Tech, West Virginia and Syracuse.

This year, the Mids started moving in another direction. Finally.

Instead of playing the University of Washington, Boston College, TCU and Vanderbilt in the first four games this season, Navy opened with VMI, TCU, Eastern Michigan and Rutgers, and went 2-2. It's hard to play Wake Forest and Notre Dame back-to-back with a 230-pound center.

"You have to have a commitment from everyone to have success," said Johnson. "One person is not going to come in and change the landscape of something that has been happening for 30 years. I understand it's the Naval Academy, it has standards and we can't supersede them, but the things you can do to give yourself a chance, you need to do.

"When you play an early schedule like we had planned back-to-back, you kill yourself before you ever get started," he said. "I think this is the first year Navy has ever beaten Vanderbilt. Teams from the BCS conferences, because of money involved, have become so strong, it's hard to play them back-to-back. Vanderbilt was a good team, but they just happen to play Alabama, Auburn and LSU."

Johnson is also having success because of his triple option offense. It's part option, part run-and-shoot. He uses four receivers - two on the outside, two in the slots - with the fullback as the lone back behind the quarterback. It's an offense built on reads by the quarterback, and hopefully allows the Midshipmen to outnumber teams on one side of the field.

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