Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Coachapalooza: run, Paul Johnson, run

Previous entries in this series: Mike Leach, Jimbo Fisher, Brian Kelly, Turner Gill.

A guy who looks like this won't be able to hack it in the SEC? Please.

First, could we get him? Well ... maybe. The neutrals don't think so: Dr. Saturday sees Johnson as "hopelessly out of reach" for Auburn and the knee-jerk reaction of my Michigan friends when I mentioned that I had Johnson tied with Kelly at the top of my shortlist was "Whatever, Homer McHomerson, Johnson's not bailing on Tech after a year."

And he's got plenty of good reasons not to, certainly. He's already been elected Supreme Dictator for Life at Tech, where they're getting ready to make him one of the ACC's highest-paid coaches, giving him essentially carte blanche to coach the rest of his career virtually pressure-free. If the 2008 Jackets were good, the future suggests they'll be great: essentially the entire team returns in 2009, and things should only get better from there as Johnson's crew gets more adjusted to his system and recruits discover they'll play for a winner if they come to Tech.

And your capper: is anybody going to challenge Tech's rise in the ACC? Even with Fisher the 'Noles are still the same 'Noles they've been for the last five years; there still isn't really a verdict on whether Shannon can do anything other than recruit at Miami (not to mention the 'Canes money issues); the Fridge's Terps, Grobe's Deacons, and Jagodzinski's Eagles are cute but ultimately harmless; Clemson just hired a wide receivers coach named "Dabo" in the most Bill Stewartesque decision since Bill Stewart; and despite the now three-year reign of Virginia Tech, that crown has been worn more and more uneasily each season. That just leaves Butch Davis and North Carolina--the same North Carolina that at the end of year 2 of the Davis reign, when their improvement should have been most apparent, instead got demolished at home by N.C. State and wheezed past Duke by 8. Johnson is poised to contend for his league's title for a decade without even breaking much of a sweat; why would he leave to go duke it out with Saban, Richt, and Miles?

Two reasons:

1. Ca$h Rules Everything Around Me, homey, and whatever Tech can pay, Auburn can pay more. Them's the facts, jack, as are Auburn's advantages in fan support, facilities, program tradition, etc. Auburn and Georgia Tech are similar programs in a lot of ways, but Auburn's is a little bit bigger, a little bit better. And we'll pay more. That's the main thing.

2. While it might be a negative on his overall resume, the fact that Johnson's biological coaching clock is ticking is a point in Auburn's favor when it comes to luring him away. Johnson is 51. He's probably only got about 10 more really good coaching years left in him, maybe five more if he ends up feeling particularly spry--but as Spurrier's struggles at South Carolina (and, hell, late-era Tubby's at Auburn) illustrate, Johnson's window as a truly elite coach is open now and will close relatively soon.

And if Johnson wants to spend that window proving to the legions of doubters that his system can work in the SEC, this Auburn opening will be his best and possibly only shot. Looking at the jobs at the SEC's "big six," Georgia, Alabama, and Florida are set for the foreseeable future. Tennessee just made a new hire. And while Miles will feel the burn if he has another season like this past one, it's more likely given his recruiting success and track record he'll be on the Bayou for a while as well. That leaves Auburn. That leaves only this opportunity for Johnson to test himself at the highest level of college football*.

I think it's likely Johnson passes on it even if it's offered. Even with the raise, even with the step up in competition, even knowing he might not have the chance to make this decision again, I suspect Johnson's not anxious to start climbing a different, steeper hill when he's already ascended to the top of the shorter one down the road. Even if Auburn throws everything they've got at him, call it only 40-60ish he arrives on the Plains.

But I do think Auburn should throw everything they've got at him. Here's why.


Start with this post, and this post, and the following highlight reel:

... in which it's true that the Georgia tacklers don't exactly cover themselves in glory, but that's what happen when an offense forces safeties and the like to either make a play or give up a long one over and over and over again: eventually, they don't. This is why Tech finished the year with more runs for 20 yard or more than any other team in the country.

More stats? Tech was third in overall rush offense, fifth in average per carry, top 50 in total offense despite the fact that the option speeds the game up and limits possessions. Remember: this Tech's statistical floor. When they're as well trained in Johnson's system as his Navy offenses were ... well, despite the game-shrinking effect, Navy never finished lower than 28th in total offense the past three years and in any case led the nation in rushing all three. Johnson is Mike Leach, just on the ground.

Which means, yes, the offense would work in the SEC. Ask Mississippi St., who gave up more yards to the Jackets than any other opponent on their schedule. Ask Georgia, who gave up more per-play to the Jackets than they did to Florida. Ask the breakdowns linked above: if you play base defense against this offense, you will lose. If you adjust, Johnson will adjust better. And you will lose.

Insanely explosive and/or efficient offense isn't always a guarantee of wins, of course--Louisiana-Lafayette averaged more per-carry and finished higher up the total offense ladder than the Jackets and went 6-6 in the Sun Belt with losses to Florida Atlantic and UTEP--but Johnson's got the wins, too: 9-3 this year (duh), a 43-19 record his last five years at Navy (where the Midshipmen had gone 3-30 the previous three years), three consecutive national championships at I-AA Georgia Southern. As with Brian Kelly, this many wins at this many different levels isn't an accident. They would come in the SEC, too.

Because as sharp as they've been on offense, Johnson's teams have generally played acceptable D. Obviously, having an offense that takes up half a quarter every drive helps, but Johnson also may have an eye for assistants--he picked his Tech defensive coordinator, Dave Wommack, up off the scrapheap of Southern Miss's defensive assistants roster (Wommack coached linebackers) and proceeded to watch the Jackets finish 23rd in the country in total defense. Not his players, true, but Navy was generally respectable--45th in 2004, 63 in '05, 61st in '06 before a potentially fluky 99th in '07. Remember, too, that like Texas Tech Navy isn't exactly swimming in top-notch defensive athletes.

Which brings us the next point: recruiting. Recruiting to Navy--with their armed forces commitments and academic standards and, to quote Wikipedia, "height and weight limits"--is flat impossible. Johnson won anyway. And at Georgia Tech, the Jackets currently have 15 three-star recruits in a class ranked 35th; in 2005 and 2006 the Jackets had 16 three-stars total and they haven't been ranked higher than 49th in the last four classes. I think it's safe to assume Johnson won't recruit quarterbacks and wide receivers who have an NFL future; I also think its safe to assume by this point he doesn't need them, and that he'll recruit just fine otherwise. Winning solves a lot of problems, and Johnson will win.

One other pro: I don't especially care what kind of offense Auburn runs as long as it works. Leach Air Raid, Johnson flexbone, whatever. But there's no doubt that hiring a head coach that flashes Auburn back to the kind of ground-pound glory days of Dye--and wins with it--will be an easy, easy sell to John Q. Auburn Fan. It's an easy sell to me.

Watching the option is fun. Watching it at Auburn ... watching it win at Auburn .. that's as good as it gonna get, man.


Johnson will win in the SEC. I don't have any doubt about that.

The fairer question is this: will he win championships? Maybe you don't need NFL-quality wideouts and quarterbacks with a viable arm to get things done on offense, but can you get so many things done that you can take down Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and LSU on a consistent enough basis to challenge for the SEC title? Sure, Johnson doesn't need bigshot recruits for his offense and his defensive track record is decent, but can he recruit well enough to take his defenses past decent and into "good enough to win the SEC?"

My honest opinion is that he could, yes. The Wommack hire indicates he'll find somebody competent to run the defense, and what little recruiting data we have indicates he should be fine-to-good on that end; offensively, there doesn't seem to be any worthwhile argument Johnson's won't be one of the best in the league, other than the same old "that won't work" knee-jerk that greeted Meyer's offense (which Johnson's resembles, incidentally).

But until/unless we see it happen, they're fair questions.

Final endorsement? Johnson's not going to build a Spurrier or even Meyer-like dynasty at Auburn; I think we can assume that much. For that, you're going to need the Wuerffels and Tebows and five-star whatnot. Also, you would have to be Florida rather than Auburn.

But what coach is more likely to turn Auburn into what we believe Auburn is--the Auburn of Dye, the Auburn of Tuberville, who slowly grinds opponents into dust offensively and plays sound, solid defensive football until the life is choked out of the opponent--than Paul Johnson? What coach is more likely to have Auburn in the thick of the SEC race year after year, always dangerous, always one missed tackle away from taking Auburn the distance? No one.

I like Kelly's track record, ingenuity, and ability to recruit to his offense a tiny bit better than Johnson's; I like Johnson's personality, offensive identity, Southern familiarity, and ability to unite the Auburn fanbase a tiny bit better than Kelly's. I like both of them more than any other plausible available candidate, and far, far more than any other plausible available candidate who's not named "Mike Leach."

Either one would be a triumph. Flip a coin, Auburn, make every attempt you can to hire the one you choose, and make us winners again.

*I'm not actually saying the SEC would be a "higher level" than the Big 12, Pac-10, or Big 10--the "highest level" to me would mean a job at a program that could compete for titles in one of those four conferences. Maybe one of those jobs will come open, and I suppose maybe Johnson would be a candidate for one of them, so saying this will be his "only" opportunity is a bit of a conjecture. But that's an awful lot of conjecture; Auburn is the only one he's guaranteed, that's for damn sure.


Ben said...

I like the way you think. Leach, Kelly, or Johnson sound like good choices to me.

PowerOfDixieland said...

You know, Jerry, your list isn't too different from mine:

1. Butch Davis
2. Brian Kelly
3. Paul Johnson
4. Turner Gill
5. Will Muschamp

I think 1-3 would be excellent hires. 4&5 would be good hires, certainly with great potential, but I'm not convinced they'd be great like I am with 1-3.

Anonymous said...

don't get me wrong, because i love Johnson...but if Auburn hired him i wouldn't exactly be blown away. what he's done at Tech is fine, but Jonathan Dwyer is easily the best back in the ACC and far better than anything Auburn currently has, and i really don't think he'll ever be able to lure guys who seriously wanna play in the NFL to come play in that offense. we'd win some guys, probably 9 or 10 on a regular basis...but i see zero SEC titles under a Johnson reign. i'd rather see Leach.

Anonymous said...

HANDS OFF MY JOHNSON! CPJ has the ability to win Championships at Tech and beat the SEC while doing it. I think right now Tech is 2-0 in SEC play and hopefully make it 3-0 this New Year's Eve. So take your Turner Gill and your boosters who really run the program but HANDS OFF MY JOHNSON!

Go Jackets!