Johnson gives Mids a winning match

College football: Now in his third season as coach, Paul Johnson has brought toughness and new life to unbeaten Navy.

September 30, 2004|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Paul Johnson turned 47 last month, yet he essentially is still the Southern boy running the pickup games in his tiny hometown, insisting on playing quarterback and not putting up with much guff while telling the other guys where to line up and what to do.

At the Naval Academy, where as head coach he has revived a floundering football program with his mastery of a relic known as the triple-option offense and a wit ranging from folksy and funny to frank and downright biting, Johnson is a hero whose stock continues to rise.

Take a walk into Dahlgren Hall, which contains the campus deli where Johnson shares wall space with legendary Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. A large banner bearing a Johnson quote reads, "Show me, don't tell me. Talk is cheap."

Slip into O'Brien's in downtown Annapolis, where Johnson hosts his weekly radio show, and watch at least 50 senior midshipmen and a bunch of civilians pack the back room and hang on his every word. A few years ago, maybe a dozen Brigade members would have bothered to make the short trip.

"Coach Johnson has a warrior mentality that the Brigade loves and the players love. He fires you up," said Clint Bruce, who played linebacker during Johnson's first stop at Navy in the mid-1990s, when he held his last assistant coach's job. "There's never time to stop getting better or start being stupid with him. If I could, I'd suit back up just to be at practice with that guy."

Could a marriage between a coach and a school be more ideal?

Johnson was five years removed from leaving Navy after helping the academy reach and win the Aloha Bowl in 1996 as its offensive coordinator, before returning by signing a six-year contract in December 2001. Johnson had further proved his mettle by taking his first head coaching job at Georgia Southern in 1997. He won two Division I-AA titles, five Southern Conference crowns and 62 games over five seasons.

"I had to think through Plan B and C and D, but all I was focused on was Plan A, which was Paul. He is perfect here," Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said.

Johnson had to tear things up and start over at Navy, where his beloved spread option had fallen apart and losing had become an acceptable habit that tortured him throughout a 2-10 debacle in 2002. That completed a 3-30 thud over three seasons.

Everything changed a year ago. Playing a pared-down schedule with an infusion of precocious recruits, a tenacious defense and a triple-option machine that led the nation in rushing, Navy won the school's first Commander in Chief's trophy since 1981 by beating Air Force and Army. The Mids ended their 8-5 season by losing to Texas Tech in the Houston Bowl, Navy's first postseason appearance in seven seasons.

The Mids are cooking now, having begun Johnson's third season with a 4-0 start, their best since opening the 1979 season with six victories. Tonight, Navy will try to win at Air Force for the first time since 1996.

"The bottom-line mission here is to produce Naval and Marine officers, and there are certain things the academy wants to teach. Teamwork. Discipline. How can you teach it better than this?" Johnson said in the smooth drawl that reveals his roots in the western North Carolina village of Newland.

"Our guys are already respected as people. They understand they're playing for respect as football players. They have a burning desire to do it. I guess I've got a little bit of confidence in myself to show them how."

Delivering his message

Johnson said 20 years of NCAA coaching - he was an assistant at Georgia Southern from 1983 to 1986 and a part of two I-AA title teams there, then spent eight successful years as the offensive coordinator at Hawaii before first coming to Navy for a two-year stay in 1995 - have taught him how to shape his run-dominated offense, how to stay aggressive with his play-calling and how to push buttons with players.

Some he'll prod gently for improvement. But Johnson the perfectionist has no problem letting his temper show if a player performs poorly, especially if he commits a mental error. His criticisms can be withering.

Senior quarterback Aaron Polanco vividly recalled the Johnson tongue-lashing he absorbed during last year's season opener.

The Mids were cruising toward a 37-10 rout of Virginia Military Institute near halftime with a 28-0 lead, and starter Craig Candeto had been slightly injured. Johnson inserted Polanco to finish the half. Instead of taking a sack with a defender hanging on his arm, Polanco threw an ill-advised pass into the flat and was intercepted.

Johnson ripped off his headset as he sprinted onto the field and tore into Polanco, chewing his ear all the way back to the bench.

"I don't think it's printable what he said. He's going to be in your face when you mess things up, and you don't forget it," Polanco said. "He's intense with everything he does. He gets you back to reality."

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