CLEMSON, S.C. — How much longer does Georgia Tech tolerate this?
Head coach Paul Johnson takes the Yellow Jackets to a bowl game every season. He averages eight wins a year. He’s gone to two Atlantic Coast Conference championship games and earned at least a share of the Coastal Division title in half his six seasons.
On the surface, these are not the kind of numbers that get head coaches fired.
However, is Georgia Tech any better now than it was six years ago when Johnson and his triple option replaced Chan Gailey?
The answer is – emphatically – no.
Johnson’s Jackets got eliminated from the ACC Coastal Division race on Thursday night with a 55-31 thumping to No. 8 Clemson at Death Valley. The result – while not surprising – is significant since the Tigers had been the one marquee program prior to Thursday that had not figured out how to defend Johnson’s trademark triple option.
Before Thursday, Johnson owned a 4-2 record against Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. It’s an impressive feat considering the quality of the Tigers’ program in recent years. In many ways, that series success against its permanent conference crossover rival is what has kept Johnson afloat for this long.
Against everybody else that matters on the Georgia Tech football schedule, the Jackets simply don’t measure up. Johnson’s team is a dreadful 3-14 against the rest of the ACC elite – Virginia Tech, Florida State and Miami.
And in the annual rivalry game against Georgia, the Ramblin’ Wreck is 1-4 with four consecutive decisive losses.
With results like that in the biggest games, the head coach better have a radiant personality that boosters adore.
Johnson’s default surliness, however, makes Gailey seem positively effervescent in retrospect. His condescension and contempt for the media and their silly questions isn’t veiled and he’s not much better with fans (though he certainly tries to mask it).
Of course, being likeable is not a requirement as long as you get the job done on Saturdays (or Thursdays). Fair to middlin’ year after year didn’t cut it with the previous regime. That is certainly not “the next step” that Johnson was charged with taking Georgia Tech to six years ago.
There was so much promise when Johnson first arrived on the Flats. The Jackets went 20-7 his first two years, winning the ACC title against Clemson in 2009 with an 11-win season.
But most of his talent back then was recruited by Gailey, and Johnson kept talking about how much better things would be once he was able to attract his kind of players to suit his particular offense.
Well, these are all Johnson’s players now and they are not better. Georgia Tech is 27-22 since 2009. It’s 0-8 against Clemson, Virginia Tech, Miami, Florida State and Georgia the past two seasons.
Gailey got fired at the end of 2007 for doing better than that. Gailey’s teams never had a losing season and never missed a bowl game in six years. He reached the ACC title game in 2006 and got booted a year later after a 7-6 campaign.
But more importantly, Gailey’s teams went 30-21 his last four seasons. Nevertheless, Gailey was canned for simply never generating enough excitement in the Jackets’ fan base.
“As far as Xs and Os, Chan is a very good coach,” said then Georgia Tech director of athletics Dan Radakovich, now at Clemson. “But there’s more to it now. College football is more than just Xs and Os, especially in the competitive market where we are. We’ve been very consistent with wins and losses. I want to be able to ratchet that up, take the next step.”
It’s up to Mike Bobinski now to decide if his predecessor’s hire can still take them there. The market is more competitive than ever, with Atlanta the heart of recruiting territory that feeds not only Georgia but Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Clemson, South Carolina and Florida.
College football has undergone and offensive explosion in the past five years, and Johnson’s old-school option is being left behind. The athletes he needs to make his system work are choosing schools with more enticing systems.
That was never more apparent than Thursday night. Clemson has one of the most dramatic offenses in the nation with dynamic athletes in all the right places. After a slow start, the Tigers were able to score almost at will against the Jackets.
And Georgia Tech, with its run-oriented counterattack, was hopeless to come back.
Other than a few big plays by Robert Godhigh that kept it deceptively close at 27-17 early in the third quarter, the Jackets were stymied most of the night offensively by the one defense they’ve typically been able to exploit.
It’s safe to say that Clemson has finally figured Georgia Tech out the way Virginia Tech routinely has. And the Tigers have vastly superior talent in so many places that it’s a mismatch unless the Jackets outmaneuver you with their grinding system.
When that system doesn’t work, it looks a lot like Thursday night.
Johnson might need to beat a struggling Georgia team in two weeks to reignite his eroding support. Georgia Tech, which is still paying former basketball coach Paul Hewitt’s buyout, probably can’t afford to fire Johnson right now. Bobinski offered the dreaded “vote of confidence” to Johnson in October.
“We clearly have upside and I’m anxious to work with Paul and our staff together to capture that upside and make sure that we have the program that we all desire to have as part of Georgia Tech,” Bobinski told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “That’s clearly an objective and I feel comfortable and confident that Paul is the guy to help make that happen.”
That gets harder to believe every year. How long can Georgia Tech afford to keep trying the same thing over and over while losing the recruiting battles every season to programs running 21st Century offenses?
Frankly, the deadline to find that “upside” has already expired.