Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Paul Johnson is the best option for Michigan

Ask any college football fan or analyst who the best football coach in America is and you will likely get a plethora of answers with only one thing in common: it will be a coach from a BCS-conference school with access to the best recruits in the country. It’s much easier to recruit and, thus, win at USC or Michigan than it is at a lesser known school. Half the job is done for a coach at a school like Oklahoma or LSU. Those schools recruit themselves on name alone. An excellent recruiter and coac--like Pete Carroll or Urban Meyer--can take those programs to a new stratosphere but those schools sell themselves. There is a coach out there who doesn’t need to coach at such a school. In fact, there is a coach out there who doesn’t even need a top 100 recruiting class, ever! Paul Johnson hasn’t had a recruiting class ranked in the top 115 in his six years at Navy. Johnson maximizes talent more so than any coach in America. Imagine what he could do at a school like Michigan. Johnson would do the same for Michigan that Urban Meyer has done for Florida. Johnson faces the same questions that Meyer faced with respect to his coaching. There were numerous skeptics who said that Meyer’s style wouldn’t work against the great teams in the SEC. I’m sure the Gators are getting a kick out of that as they look at their National Championship rings. Not hiring Paul Johnson would be a monumental mistake by any institution that makes such a decision.

The resurrection at Navy

"Football is not exactly what the academy is about, but it's important for the
spirit there. They like to be proud of the athletic teams. It's a tribute to
Paul and his staff that they've brought a lot of excitement back by making Navy
very competitive in Division I-A. " (Roger Staubach)

Facing the most challenging on-field situation that any coach could ever endure in college football, Johnson has brilliantly transformed the Navy program into a raging success. It took just two seasons for Johnson to take Navy from winless to an eight-win team. After a 2-10 first-year, Johnson has guided Navy to a 41-19 record with five bowl appearances. Navy had only been to nine bowl games in the previous 100+ years.

Navy has won at least eight games in each of its last five seasons. Navy hadn’t won eight games in a season since 1980 before Johnson arrived, with the exception of 1996 when Navy went 9-3. Care to guess who Navy’s Offensive Coordinator was at the time? Yep, Paul Johnson.

Navy has been to a bowl game in each of its last five seasons. Navy hadn’t been to a bowl game since the Liberty Bowl in 1981 before Johnson arrived, with the exception of 1996 when Navy played in the Aloha Bowl. Again, Johnson was the Offensive Coordinator.

Navy is 2-2 in bowl games under Johnson including a one-point heartbreaker to big favorite Boston College last season. Navy hadn’t won a bowl game since 1978 before Johnson arrived, with the exception of 1996 when Navy beat Cal in the Aloha Bowl with Johnson guiding the offense.

Johnson took over the worst football program in the country in terms of talent, recruiting prowess, and attractiveness. There isn’t a more difficult recruiting handicap in the country than having to explain to recruits that they must serve a five-year mandatory commitment in the military before ever sniffing the NFL? Things got so bad that Navy’s program was even worse than hapless Temple having lost to the mighty Owls in each of the previous two seasons before Johnson arrived in 2002. In those two years, Navy went a combined 1-20.

The Naval Academy is a phenomenal academic institution that churns out the best leaders in America but a destination for aspiring professional football players it is not. Most of the “best” coaches in America would fizzle out at Navy in a hurry. Name a coach and you would likely see that coach bomb at Navy. I don’t care if it’s Bob Stoops, Pete Carroll, Steve Spurrier or Nick Saban. None of them would likely sniff a winning season at Navy. Urban Meyer is the only coach that I can think of who could duplicate what Johnson has done for the Navy program. Spurrier left the cozy confines of Gainesville only to end up in Columbia, SC. His success at a lower profile college football program has been minimal at best. The dropoff in talent from Florida to S. Carolina has been too much for Spurrier to overcome. Saban coached a few years at Michigan St. with mild success. It wasn’t until he traded in Michigan St’s talent level for LSU’s that he was able to build a dominant program. Both South Carolina and Michigan St. have more talent on their benches than Navy will ever see. Likewise, S. Carolina and Michigan St. are much closer in terms of talent level to Florida and Michigan, than Navy is to virtually all of its opponents.

The only school that can claim as great of a talent shortage is Army. Bobby Ross—one of the most respected coaches in football—coached at Army for three seasons where he amassed a 9-25 record. Amazingly, that was a massive improvement over Army’s previous four seasons that saw the Black Knights go 4-32. The Service Academy football teams are at such a talent disadvantage that the only possible way a school could have a run like the one Navy has been on over the last six years is to have a vastly superior coach.

Here is another way of putting it…think of a situation—any situation—that would be the absolute greatest challenge to a coach. Let’s say you want to put every coach in the country through a “test” to find out who is the absolute best coach in America. Think of the most difficult challenge you could possibly imagine. What challenge did you think of? Is there anything more challenging than asking a coach to take over a school with the least amount of talent in the country, the most challenging recruiting obstacles, and a program that had gone 1-20 over the previous two years and 66-143 over the previous 19 years? What Paul Johnson has done at Navy is the most impressive feat that any coach in college football can claim.

Degree of Difficulty (Recruiting)

"Recruiting has always been hard at the academies and it is always going to be
that way. We try and sell the experience and the education value you get for a
lifetime. You can't change the academics or the commitment required. And there
are certain kids who don't want to have anything to do with it. We just try and
sell the positives about the program." (Paul Johnson)
Baltimore Sun

I can’t emphasize enough the up-hill battle the Navy program faces in terms of recruiting. The only thing keeping Navy (and Army) in I-A football is pride. In terms of talent, there is little difference between Navy and the best I-AA teams. In fact, the best I-AA teams can sell a successful football program combined with a number of professional opportunities. Navy can only recruit players who are willing to commit their lives to serving in the military. Navy’s recruiting obstacles are apparent when looking at recruiting rankings. Navy finished no better than 116th in recruiting from 2002-2007. At other schools, success breeds success in large part due to improvements in recruiting. At Navy, no matter how good the football program is, the recruiting classes will never get better. Johnson has the same talent that his processor had in 2001-2002 that led to that 1-20 record.

"I think we need to play almost that way to beat anyone. I don’t think that
anybody is going to accuse us of ‘out-athleting’ anyone. It comes down to
execution, playing hard and all those things. Certainly if we don’t do that we
can get embarrassed by Boston College. We don’t have anybody on our team that
they recruited." (Paul Johnson)

The Triple Option aka "The Spread"

"They run it all the time, and we throw it a lot, but in my mind
that's sort of where the differences end...It's about distribution of the
ball. They make sure everybody touches the ball, and the quarterback makes
good decisions about who gets the ball. Philosophically, I think we're
incredibly similar." (Texas Tech Coach Mike Leach)
Much has been made of Johnson’s coaching style specifically his use of the triple option. It has been described as gimmicky and not conducive to big-time college football. Apparently, those critiques were M.I.A for the 2006 season that saw Urban Meyer win a National Championship using a version of the spread option at Florida. Johnson has repeatedly stated that his offense is best used when tailoring it to the strengths of the team. At Navy, he has to use it to emphasize the run to mask a weak passing game. Johnson has said that his offense would actually work the best with an emphasis on the passing game which is hard to imagine considering Navy averages an incredible 350 yards rushing per game (#1 in the country by close to 50 yards per game). Still, it’s not like Johnson’s offense only works against shady defenses. Last season—when every team knew that Navy would run the ball 80% of the time—Johnson’s running game rolled up 322 yards on the ground against Boston College in the Meineke Bowl. BC had the 12th best rushing defense in the country having allowed only 90 yards rushing per game. This season, Navy put up 328 rushing yards against Wake Forest which has the 18th rush defense in the country. Give Johnson the worst talent in the country and he’ll give you an offense that averages 350 yards per game. Give him the best talent in the country and……(fill in the blank). With Michigan’s talent, Johnson would put up 500 yards per game with a balanced offense. The rest of the Big Ten would be helpless to stop Michigan's superior talent combined with Johnson's superior coaching.

"In fact, this could possibly be the best passing offense ever...Because when
you run the option, it limits what (defenses) can do coverage-wise, and you can
get all kinds of one-on-one matchups (against the defense downfield)." (Paul
"What's great about this offense is that you can emphasize whatever best fits
your people... If you've got a great quarterback, of course you're going to
throw; that's what you do to win. If your personnel is better rushing the ball;
that's what you do, because that's what you do to win." (Paul Johnson)
News Observer


Navy is an extremely well-coached football team and it shows in virtually every measurable statistic. Navy is first in rushing offense, 9th in points per game, 3rd in fewest penalties, 2nd in fewest penalty yards, 10th in 4th down conversion percentage despite going for it the 6th most in all of college football, 4th in 3rd down conversion percentage, 11th in first downs per game. Navy is near the top in every one of those categories despite there being 120 teams in I-A football. Considering the talent discrepancy between Navy and its opponents, those rankings are hard to believe.

Tradition and Values

Navy has a rich tradition in college football. It participates in one of the great rivalries in all sports against Army. It boasts a National Championship and two Heisman Trophy winners. No school offers a more grueling academic schedule. No school puts a greater emphasis on character and integrity. Navy athletes are held to much higher standards than every major college football program. There is no question that Johnson has tremendous experience in emphasizing the principles that Michigan values the most in terms of academic and athletic excellence. Don't forget that Johnson is teaching young men who are training to give their lives for their country. This is an experience that few coaches in the country can bring to the table. As far as values and integrity go, Johnson can bring something to Michigan that most coaches have never experienced. Real-world problems are constantly in play.


In no way whatsoever could Johnson’s success at Navy be considered anything other than a masterpiece. However, he is clearly not a “one-trick pony.” Before coming to Navy, Johnson turned around the Georgia Southern program. He inherited a team that had gone 4-7 the previous season. What followed is only equaled by Johnson’s transformation at Navy. He guided Georgia Southern to five consecutive conference championships in what is widely considered the most difficult conference in I-AA, and two consecutive national championships including a dominating win over Jim Tressel’s Younstown St. team in 1999. Johnson also won four consecutive National Coach of the Year awards. Did I mention this was all in just five seasons? In those five seasons, Johnson guided Georgia Southern to 62 wins. Only four coaches in the history of college football (any division) have won 50+ games in a four-year span. Johnson is one of them.

Before restoring Georgia Southern to dominance, Johnson had a short stint as the offensive coordinator at Navy for two seasons. In the previous four seasons, Navy had gone 9-35. Johnson guided Navy to nine wins in 1996 alone which was Navy’s first winning season since 1982. When Johnson left for Georgia Southern, the Navy program hit rock bottom. Johnson was the offensive coordinator for Georgia Southern’s back to back national titles in 85-86. Teams start winning when Johnson arrives. Consider the following:

First stint with Navy as offensive coordinator

Before Johnson: 9-35 (zero bowl games in previous four seasons)
With Johnson in '96: 9-3 (first winning season in 14 years)

Second stint with Navy as head coach

Before Johnson: 1-20 (previous two seasons)
With Johnson: 43-29 (five bowl games in six years)

First stint with Georgia Southern as offensive coordinator

With Johnson: 1985 and1986 National Champions

Second Stint with Georgia Southern as head coach

Before Johnson: 4-7 (in previous season)
With Johnson: 62-10 (five conference championships and two national titles)


When degree of difficulty is taken into consideration, Johnson is the best coach in the country by a mile. He was the best coach in I-AA and he has been the best coach in I-A. Johnson has won a National Coach of the Year award five times in just ten years as a head coach. Nobody can touch that.

There is no question in my mind that Johnson would put Michigan on par with USC, Florida, and Ohio St. in terms of college football supremacy. The most successful programs have the best coaches. They have the best game-plans and the best in-game adjustments. Johnson is the best of the bunch. Michigan would never enter a football game with a coaching disadvantage again with Johnson at the helm. The Michigan program deserves a coach like Johnson. He would be the greatest thing to happen to the Michigan football program since Bo was hired in 1969. I realize that Johnson probably won’t even be considered for various reasons that have nothing to do with coaching. If this hire was made strictly on who would lead Michigan to the greatest success, Johnson would be named the head coach yesterday. The biggest mistake Michigan could ever make is to hire someone other than Johnson. Time will tell. Hopefully, it will tell with Johnson on the Michigan sideline.


Anonymous said...

Well written article. Just responding to correct one detail. In 1996 it was the Aloha Bowl rather than Liberty Bowl. That fact does not alter your point at all, I know.
Navy Fan

Jake said...

Thanks, it's fixed. The Liberty Bowl in '81--as I'm sure you know--was Navy's last bowl before 1996. That's how that got in there.

Take care!


Anonymous said...

The only school that can claim as great of a talent shortage is Army.

What about Air Force? They went 9-3 this season.

Jake said...

Not mentioning Air Force was out of respect for the program rather than an oversight. I think Air Force has a few advantages over Navy and Army which allows for slightly better recruiting.

1). Air Force is in Colorado. Army and Navy are on the East Coast. If a high school football player who lives West of the Mississippi is looking at a Service Academy, I’m guessing Air Force tops the list. Air Force has a pretty big geographical advantage in terms of recruiting. Army and Navy get their share of players from that region but Air Force probably gets first shot.

2). From 1982-2002, Air Force was by far the most successful Academy. Meanwhile, Army and Navy were horrendous for the most part. Paul Johnson has changed Navy’s image drastically, but Air Force has been successful for a much longer period which certainly helps in recruiting over Navy and Army.

3). This might be a bit na├»ve on my part but I’ve always felt that Air Force has somewhat of a built-in advantage over Army and Navy that helps in recruiting. I think that most high school athletes who are considering an Academy are more drawn to what the Air Force offers (a chance to fly planes) than what the Army and Navy offer. I’m not saying that any of the three are better than any of the other. From what I understand, Air Force has a more laid-back approach (still way too crazy-tough for us average folks) which also has to be a recruiting advantage. If I’m off base here, then I apologize. That’s the impression that I have gotten from talking to alums from the schools.

4). This probably has the least impact but Air Force plays in a conference. It may not be a factor in the BCS-race but it can still realistically fight for a championship every year. As independents, Army and Navy cannot. This advantage is offset slightly by the fact that Army and Navy get to travel to more places with 12 non-conference games per year. However, Army and Navy play more patsies so that doesn’t have too much of an impact.

I think for these reasons, Air Force manages to bring in slightly better recruits. Air Force has a similar talent disadvantage in the majority of its games but I think Army and Navy face a greater disadvantage.

Anyhow, that’s why I didn’t mention Air Force.

Take care,


Anonymous said...

great job, jake! I couldn't agree with you more.

According to wikipedia, Paul Johnson is interviewing with Nebraska ...

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! Its outrageous that football fans have an irrational bias against option-based offense. When you compare what Nebraska did from 93-97 to what USC did from 02-06, Nebraska is better in almost every way. Yet, most college football fans would assert that Pete Carrol is a better coach than Tom Osborne, and that Nebraska was just "lucky." Johnson should be mentioned for every top job in the country.

Anonymous said...

I didn't see this article until now, great job! Georgia Tech got a very good coach!

Jake said...


I'm obviously a big fan of Johnson's. I think he is the best x's and o's coach in the country. One advantage, though, that Rodriguez has is recruiting. Johnson--to no fault of his own--hasn't had an opportunity to make contacts with the big-time recruits while at Navy. Rodriguez has. So, either guy would've been a sweet choice for UM. I'm definitely Ga. Tech's newest fan, though. I can't wait to see what he does there.

Take care!


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