As ACC Kickoff wound to a close on Monday, Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson relaxed in a chair surrounded by just a handful of reporters that had largely run out of topics to discuss. Finally, Johnson was asked what he would change about his job, if he could change just one thing.
He hemmed and hawed and considered simply moving on, but after a bit he conceded that the tenor among fans in Atlanta was often, in his opinion, too negative, while people outside of Tech territory seem to be a bit more upbeat on the program.
That got us to thinking: Are things really so bad at Georgia Tech or are fans ignoring the successes the program has enjoyed? ACC reporters Andrea Adelson and David Hale dish out both sides of the debate.
Adelson says Georgia Tech deserves more credit: It is easy to see why the chorus against Johnson is growing. Georgia Tech has won nine games just once in the last five years, and there has been roster and coaching staff turnover over the last two.
But perspective is in order here.
First, Georgia Tech has been to a school-record 17 straight bowl games, the third-longest active streak in the country. Only Florida State and Virginia Tech have longer streaks.
Second, the Jackets have gone .500 or better in conference play in 19 consecutive seasons, the longest conference streak in the country. Just two seasons ago, Georgia Tech nearly upset Florida State in the ACC championship game, then took down USC in the Sun Bowl.
So my question then is this; what exactly will make his critics happy?
Georgia Tech is in contention for the ACC championship every single season, and has been a lock to make a bowl for nearly two decades. Obviously, winning another ACC championship and breaking a long losing streak to Georgia are at the top of the list.
But on the other hand, Johnson knows how to win football games. He has posted two losing seasons in 17 total years as a head coach, in his first year at Navy and with the Jackets in 2010. He has won two division titles and made a BCS game during his time at Georgia Tech. In six seasons, he has won 47 games, fourth-best in the league behind Florida State, Clemson and Virginia Tech.
If the standard is to win games, be competitive in the ACC and get to bowls, Johnson has hit that mark every single year. If the standard is to make yearly BCS games, well Johnson has failed -- along with every other coach in America.
Realistic expectations are in order here. Georgia Tech has continued to win games with Johnson in charge. The Jackets have also graduated players at a much better clip, earning NCAA Public Recognition Awards in consecutive years for finishing in the top 10 percent among all FBS programs in the Academic Progress Rate.
It is pretty rare for a winning coach at program that is outside the Top 25 (and the SEC for that matter) to be fired for not winning enough. Look at Tom O’Brien, fired after three straight bowl appearances at NC State. Dave Doeren comes in last season and goes 3-9, winless in ACC play. The Wolfpack were picked to finish fifth in the Atlantic this year.
Is that an alternative the Jackets would want?
Hale says the Jackets can do better: As we get into this debate, I’m reminded of the words of former Georgia Tech AD Dave Braine, who said the Yellow Jackets “could win nine or 10 games but they will never do that consistently.” Those words helped end Braine’s tenure, but in the eight years since he departed, they’ve pretty much defined exactly what Georgia Tech has been on the football field.
So the question of whether Georgia Tech is meeting its potential is really two-fold: First, is the occasional 10-win season surrounded by years of six or seven or eight victories really Tech’s cap? And, if so, is Johnson doing enough to meet that expectation?
I’d argue the answer is no on both points.
Yes, Tech has hurdles that other ACC schools may not. Its academic standards are high while it’s forced to compete directly with powerful SEC programs in the area. But Tech is also located in some of the nation’s most fertile recruiting territory, and while not all athletes are eager to spend their college years in the big city, Atlanta offers a big selling point to some. Yes, academics can be an issue -- but that hasn’t stopped Stanford or Notre Dame or, lately, even Duke from hitting that 10-win platform and bringing in more prominent recruits.
But let’s not even focus on landing five-star athletes at Tech. From 2010 through 2013, Johnson scored just six four-star recruits (per ESPN rankings). Those six players have combined to start just 13 games -- all by Vad Lee, who transferred after last season. In fact, three of those six four-star signees are no longer with the program.
It’s tough to even credit Johnson (and his staff) for developing three-star recruits into stars. Tech had three players taken in this year’s draft, which brings the total number of Johnson recruits selected during his tenure to four.
There’s also the sheer number of players who aren’t sticking around. That was already the topic of discussion earlier this week when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted that 13 Georgia Tech players have departed since the end of the 2013 season.
A lot of these personnel issues can be hidden by Johnson’s unique offensive strategy, and thus Georgia Tech has sustained some measure of consistency on the field. But while the offense has survived, the defense has been mediocre at best and dismal at its worst. Since 2010, only Duke has allowed more yards-per-play than Georgia Tech.
And then there are the wins and the losses. Yes, Tech has continued to make it to a bowl game each year, and that’s no easy task. Of course, it was easy enough for 11 of the ACC’s 14 teams to do it last season. But since 2010, Georgia Tech is 21-21 against teams from automatic-qualifier conferences. It has lost eight of its last nine bowl games. It has lost 12 of 13 to rival Georgia, including blowing a 20-0 lead in last year’s game.
Johnson is correct when he says that people probably undervalue what Georgia Tech has done, but that’s really part of the problem. He’s not selling recruits on the program, he’s not winning his showcase games and, as he said, he’s not convincing the hometown fans that the future is bright. The Yellow Jackets’ success has made for some interesting bits of trivia, but even Braine would probably admit the program can do better than that.