Reggie Campbell never saw a postgame pep rally before. Tecumseh Court at the United States Naval Academy was usually reserved for noon formations or rallies on the eve of football games.
Navy road trips usually end with buses quietly pulling up to the locker room in the early morning twilight. After Navy’s 2007 triple-overtime win at Notre Dame -- snapping an NCAA-record 43 consecutive losses to a single major opponent -- the bus detoured and unloaded at Tecumseh Court.
"It was late but everybody was out there screaming, yelling, cheering," Campbell, the former Navy slot back said. "The Academy was going crazy."
Paul Johnson orchestrated that win as Navy’s coach. On Saturday, as Georgia Tech’s coach, he will return to Notre Dame for the first time since 2007.
"That’s kind of out of sight, out of mind," Johnson said. "That was a long time ago."
The eighth-year Yellow Jackets coach doesn’t have much time to reminisce. This weekend’s game at Notre Dame could serve as a College Football Playoff elimination game. Both are playoff contenders, and a head-to-head result would loom large in December, especially if both teams finish the season with one loss.
That 2007 win might be part of the reason Johnson and the Yellow Jackets are in this position.
Johnson turned around a Navy program that was 1-20 in the two seasons before his arrival. After a 2-10 season in his first year, Johnson won 35 games over the next four seasons. During the fall of 2006, Johnson was linked to openings at both North Carolina and NC State, but they elected for Butch Davis and Tom O’Brien, respectively.
"No, not a lot of calls [to hire Johnson before 2007], but like I said, I knew he was on everyone’s radar screen, but everyone was hesitant because of the triple option," Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said. "It was the, 'Oh, it won’t work here.' Paul always contended it would work anywhere."
In his first five seasons, Johnson had wins against BCS programs Duke, Rutgers, Stanford, UConn and Vanderbilt, but all were programs without much brand recognition at the time. He was 8-12 against BCS teams overall from 2003-2006.
A little a more than a month after the Navy win in 2007, Johnson was announced as the Georgia Tech coach in early December 2007. Dan Radakovich, who hired Johnson at Georgia Tech but who now serves at Clemson’s athletic director, said through a Clemson spokesman that Johnson was on his list even before the Notre Dame win based on the turnaround at Navy and his prior success at Georgia Southern. He added that what the Notre Dame win did bring was a national spotlight to Johnson.
"... For Navy to finally beat Notre Dame after 43 years brought tremendous national exposure to Paul and his program and the Academy," Gladchuk said. "That game may have catapulted him to Georgia Tech, but Paul had developed a tremendous reputation nationally."
The Notre Dame win might have colored outside perceptions of Johnson as a coach, but it is the results that have him returning to Notre Dame for a game with playoff implications. The Yellow Jackets finished 11-3 with an Orange Bowl win last season, and they’ve been as dominant as any team to start 2015.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, who served under Johnson at Hawaii and Navy twice, said the Notre Dame win and more recent notable wins at Georgia Tech are just further confirmation of the coaching talent Johnson possessed even dating back to his time as an assistant.
"He was good before . His record speaks and he won games at Georgia Southern and Hawaii," Niumatalolo said. "[The Georgia Tech success] is not a fluke. The man is really good at what he does." -- Matt Fortuna contributed to this report.