Most college football fans are relatively unfamiliar with Paul Johnson. I don’t necessarily blame them, but that unfamiliarity has led to some damaging misconceptions that could prevent Michigan from even considering one of the elite coaches in college football. Before writing Johnson off as a “gimmick” coach not befitting of a national power, fans and Michigan officials owe it to the program to get the story straight. Johnson is in a class with Urban Meyer, Pete Carroll, Jim Tressel, and Bob Stoops as the truly elite coaches in college football. He is a brilliant football coach who would almost certainly take the Michigan football program to the next level. Unfortunately, there are a few misconceptions that keep Johnson from being embraced by major college football programs…
“Johnson’s offense wouldn’t work at a BCS-school.”
I remember the same criticisms of Urban Meyer when he went to Florida via Utah via Bowling Green. A bevy of pundits claimed that Meyer’s “gimmick” offense would get destroyed by the speed and athleticism of the defenses in the SEC. In year two at Florida, Meyer won a National Championship. In year three, Meyer’s quarterback had 51 touchdowns. The writing was on the wall so to speak before Meyer ever went to Florida but many chose to ignore it. Meyer’s Utah-teams clobbered good teams and bad teams alike. Utah destroyed BCS-conference teams such as Texas A&M and Pittsburgh but Meyer’s offense was still criticized as being “gimmicky” as he made the move to Florida. The same writing is on the wall for Paul Johnson. His offense destroys good defenses and bad defenses alike. People forget that since Johnson can’t recruit a non-terrible throwing quarterback to Navy, he has to run the ball 80% of the time. Defenses know that Navy is going to run. Imagine how much more devastating the Navy offense would be if Johnson could run a more balanced offense. Still, even when defenses know the run is coming, there isn’t anything they can do about it. To suggest that Navy’s offense can’t have success against good teams is just wrong. In last year’s Mieneke Bowl, Navy ran for 322 yards against Boston College which had the nation’s 13th best rush defense allowing only 90 yards per game. Navy ran for 331 yards against Pittsburgh this season. West Virginia—with the #4 rushing attack in the country—ran for 104 yards against Pittsburgh. Navy ran for 328 yards against Wake Forest which has the 17th best rush defense in the country. Clemson—with the talented duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller—ran for 145 yards against Wake Forest. Navy ran for 245 yards against Rutgers. South Florida—with the #29 rushing attack in the country—ran for 115 against Rutgers. Navy ran for 302 yards against Air Force. Utah—with the #48 rushing attack in the country—ran for 73 yards against Air Force.
With the least amount of talent in the country and the handicap of defenses knowing that Navy must run the ball to be successful, Johnson’s offense rolled to an average of 350 yards rushing per game this season. Just imagine the damage Johnson could do with the best talent in the country and the added advantage of being able to keep defenses off-balance with an equally effective passing attack. The results would be dramatic. The closest equivalent that I can think of is what Urban Meyer has been able to accomplish with Florida’s vast talent level.
“Paul Johnson isn’t a good defensive coach.”
I say we put Pete Carroll at Army and ask him to run his vaunted USC passing offense. Then, when Army has the worst offense in the country, let’s conclude that Carroll isn’t a good offensive coach. Sound logical? It’s amazing to me that people keep ignoring the fact that Navy is not like any other school in the country. Along with Army and Air Force, Navy has the least talented players in the country and it’s not even close. Year in and year out, regardless of success level, Navy has one of the five worst recruiting classes in the country. Johnson has taken Navy to five consecutive bowl games and that hasn’t had even the slightest impact on Navy’s recruiting efforts. People who follow college football closely understand that it is possible to put together a high-scoring offense without much talent. However, it is virtually impossible to do the opposite. When the ball is in the hands of the offense, coaches can keep defenses off-balance with misdirection. On defense, those sorts of advantages do not exist. Texas Tech, Hawaii, Boise St., West Virginia and Navy are just some of the examples of programs that annually have tremendous offenses despite poor recruiting. On the flip side, how many programs routinely have tremendous defenses despite poor recruiting? As far as I know, the answer is zero unless you want to count Georgia Tech or TCU as poor recruiting schools. Johnson could only dream to have Georgia Tech’s talent at the Naval Academy. Defenses with vastly inferior talent and athleticism have virtually no chance of being successful. Navy’s defenses are considerably outweighed by, slower than, and less athletic than, every offense it faces. Knocking Johnson for not having a great defense at Navy is like knocking Michael Jordan for not being able to dunk on a 15’ rim.
Nonetheless, Johnson has managed to take the worst talent in the country and put the Navy defense in the middle of the pack in the NCAA in most years. Below is Navy’s national rank in defense (Points Per Game and Yards Per Game) since 2003…
Johnson has managed to keep Navy’s defense fairly competitive despite its significant talent disadvantage. The Navy defense struggled in 2007 but with the loss of eight starters from last season’s defense, Navy’s defensive struggles in ’07 were inevitable.
Johnson’s offensive success at Navy is a testament to his brilliance as an offensive coach. To expect anything in the name of defense or recruiting at a school that requires five years of military service is just being ignorant. A better indicator of Johnson’s ability to recruit and field a competitive defense is what he did at Georgia Southern when he was on a level playing field. Everyone knows that Jim Tressel can recruit and field a stellar defense. He has proven that his dominance at I-AA Youngstown St. was just a precursor to his dominance at Ohio St. Most people would be shocked to find out that while Johnson was coaching at Georgia Southern, his defenses outperformed Tressel’s. In five seasons at Georgia Southern, Johnson’s teams gave up 18.7 PPG. During that period, Tressel’s teams gave up 19.7 PPG. Under Tressel, Ohio St. is the premier defensive program in the country. There is no reason to think or even suggest that Johnson would fail to produce a winning defense when his defenses outperformed Tressel’s on the I-AA level.
“Paul Johnson can’t recruit.”
This is just silly. Anyone who knows anything about football knows that the Service Academies cannot recruit on a level playing field against the rest of I-A college football. I’d like to see Pete Carroll recruit at a school with a five-year mandatory military commitment incurred by every graduate of his football team. Then, I’d like to see people lambaste Carroll for not being able to recruit. Sound reasonable? Johnson had no problem recruiting at Georgia Southern where he put together a 62-10 record with five conference championships, three national title games, and two national championships in just five seasons. Jim Tressel and Paul Johnson were the top coaches in I-AA football in the late 90’s. Johnson’s resume—albeit much shorter—includes a more impressive record and a head-to-head, five-touchdown, beat-down of Tressel’s Youngstown St.-team in the 1999 I-AA National Championship game. Ohio St.—amid similar recruiting concerns—hired Tressel and the rest is history. Tressel has brought in a top 15 recruiting class in six of the last seven years. More importantly, Tressel’s ability to develop those players and maximize the talents of those players has made Ohio St. one of the top two or three football programs in college football. Michigan and Ohio St. will always be able to recruit with the best programs in the country. The question is whether or not Michigan will be able to develop and utilize those recruits. Johnson is clearly the coach to do that. Tressel has proven everything we need to know about whether a great coach without name recognition can recruit at a national power.
Michigan can't afford to settle
This is the one chance that Michigan has to make a leap to national superiority. The difference between a “safe” hire and “the best” hire is the difference between mediocrity and excellence. This is the most important decision that the Michigan program has faced since 1969. So many Michigan fans are holding their collective breaths right now for fear of a mistake. A mistake at this point would be a brutal blow to the Michigan program. The landscape of college football has changed to the point that simply having a recognizable football program is not enough. The elite football programs in the country are the ones that have combined the recognizable name/program (i.e. USC, Oklahoma, Florida, and Ohio St.) with a top-notch coach. Michigan must do the same if it wants to compete with those programs. There are only one or two coaches out there who would give Michigan the coaching advantage it needs to excel. Paul Johnson is at the top of the list.