Why Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson still runs option offense, and why it still works

ATLANTA – Contrary to rumor, Paul Johnson’s office overlooking Bobby Dodd Stadium is not hewn out of rock.

There are no cave drawings on the walls. He does not come to work at Georgia Tech wearing a Fred Flintstone animal skin.

How far will Paul Johnson's option offense take the Yellow Jackets this season? (Getty)
How far will Paul Johnson's option offense take the Yellow Jackets this season? (Getty)

In clear refutation of perception, Johnson actually has a desktop computer. And an iPhone sits in front of him – albeit one that looks like a dated model, maybe an iPhone 4.

But amid the trappings of fancy modern offices, the Yellow Jackets’ facility is permeated with the smell of sweat. Nice furniture and carpet can’t hide that. It’s football’s ancient ingredient, and Johnson is right at home with ancient stuff.

As long as it keeps working. And it is.

The Yellow Jackets went 11-3 last year, winning both the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division and the Orange Bowl, and they could be every bit as good in 2015 if a new crop of backs and receivers step up. Despite the alleged antiquity of the man in charge.

Johnson may be the last college football coach to send in plays by word of mouth – his mouth into a player’s ear, who runs onto the field and relays it to the quarterback, who then calls it to the team in the huddle. Yes, they still huddle at Georgia Tech.

In the modern, hurry-up game, it seems so dial-up of Johnson.

The vast majority of teams communicate plays through multiple quarterbacks or coaches signaling. Or they hold up big cardboard signs with a smorgasbord of pictures and numbers on them. They rush to the line of scrimmage, then halt and peer at the sidelines, waiting for the mimes and the signs to tell them what to do next.

Johnson does it his way. Of course. The 58-year-old is as trendy as a Greyhound bus, as cutting-edge as a newspaper, and perfectly OK with that.

Because he’s still winning – three ACC division titles, one ACC overall title, and 12 straight bowl appearances at Navy and Georgia Tech. With a style that would make Woody Hayes smile.

“We used to signal plays in and we still could, but when I was at the Naval Academy (1995-96 as offensive coordinator and 2002-07 as head coach), our kids could steal signals pretty easily,” Johnson said with a smile. “I figured if they can do it, other people can do it. And a lot of times by sending them in, I can dictate – I might say, ‘312 Switch, look for Z.’ Or ‘Curl/out, it’s going to be the curl.’ I can help the quarterback out a little bit."

ACC at a glance
ACC at a glance

It’s not just the method of delivery that makes Johnson a throwback, of course. It’s the plays themselves: almost all of them runs, and from triple-option formations. As the game rushes away from the huddle and toward spreading the field and throwing more, Johnson trends defiantly in the opposite direction.

Georgia Tech passed just 20.95 percent of the time in 2014, fourth-lowest percentage among 128 FBS teams. Two of the three below the Yellow Jackets were previously coached by Johnson: Navy and Georgia Southern. The other is Army.

Over the last three seasons, only Army and Navy have thrown less than Tech’s 18.45 percent of the time (last year’s uptick to more than 20 was testament to the passing ability of returning quarterback Justin Thomas). Over the same period of time, no FBS team has averaged more than Tech’s 63.3 rushing attempts per game.

The option game popularized by the wishbone in the late 1960s and the veer in the 1970s was still winning national championships as recently as the ‘90s, when Nebraska was running a lot of it. In fact, it’s still alive in a lot of places, with a few tweaks – the spread-option changes the location of the quarterback and running back(s) without changing the fundamentals of the offense.

But Paul Johnson still coaches it a lot like Emory Bellard, Darrell Royal and Barry Switzer would coach it. He embraces the ideology. The other guys today that option from the spread typically don’t like the recruiting reputation that comes with being considered ground-bound.

“Everybody runs some option,” Johnson said. “Guys are so afraid they’re going to get labeled as option coaches. I used to laugh at Urban [Meyer], because when we were at Navy and they were at Utah, they used to call us all the time about scheme and stuff. He’d tell me, ‘I don’t want to get labeled an option guy.’

“That just never bothered me. Dance with the one that brung ya. We’ve just kind of stayed true to what we do.”

Johnson has been doing it his entire football life.

They ran the wishbone when Johnson played at Avery County High School in the mountains of western North Carolina. Avery County was known as the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World,” but not for much else.

Like most kids in Newland, N.C., a town of about 800, Johnson played whatever sport was in season.

“We didn’t have a Hardee’s or McDonald’s to hang out,” Johnson said. “That’s all there was to do.”

He tried to play both football and basketball at Western Carolina University, but gave up on being a football walk-on. That didn’t stop him from pursuing a coaching job in the sport after graduation, however – as the offensive coordinator at his high school, under the coach he played for.

“My goal was to be the head coach at my high school,” he said.

Johnson actually never achieved that goal, moving into the college ranks by age 23 and never going back. He’s coached college football for 35 years without ever being fired.

Yet, strangely, there have been very few imitators. Right or wrong, an offense built almost solely on the running game is seen as dangerously unfriendly to 21st century fans. Better for a coach’s marketability to throw it all over the yard and play at a breakneck pace – except Johnson has beaten plenty of those guys.

Georgia Tech is in good hands with dual-threat QB Justin Thomas at the helm of its offense. (AP)
Georgia Tech is in good hands with dual-threat QB Justin Thomas at the helm of its offense. (AP)

When executed well, his version of the option is its own poetry in motion. The line blocking – which annually produces complaints of dangerous cut blocks from opponents – is lockstep unit precision. The reads by the quarterback – handoff, keep or pitch – are split-second. The ball handling and back movements are expertly choreographed.

It can be a lot of fun to watch. Really. Check out Tech this year.

Oh, Johnson could coach offensive football another way. He’s done it before a little bit, early in his career, and he tells a funny story about calling plays for Tennessee’s offense when working for Phil Fulmer in the Hula Bowl one year.

“Phil said, ‘You’re pretty good at this. You want to come do this with us?’ “ Johnson recalled. “I said, ‘Hey, dude, if I had to throw it on third-and-2, I’d get out of that offense.’ He started laughing.”

Natural follow-up question: how many times have you thrown it on third-and-2 in your career?

“Some,” he said. “But usually if we did it, I knew we were going for it on fourth.”

In a cookie-cutter, imitator profession, there are no other Paul Johnsons in power-five conferences. He’s as much of an against-the-grain original as Mike Leach – except Leach is a passing fanatic whose concepts were copied far and wide.

Johnson’s personality and playbook might not wow the masses at a blueblood program, but at a freshly minted 58 – his birthday is Thursday – he’s fine where he is. Georgia Tech will gladly take its iconoclastic caveman, with or without the Flintstone animal skin.