As Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson startED piling up the wins this season, you could imagine him reclining in his office chair, arms behind his head, legs propped on his desk, smoking a cigar.
Having a good ol' laugh.
Because everybody was wrong about Johnson.
And everybody was wrong about Georgia Tech.
The team nobody thought stood a chance in the Coastal Division finds itself ranked No. 12 in the country, with a spot opposite No. 3 Florida State in the ACC championship game on Saturday. Johnson, under intense scrutiny before the season began, won his third ACC Coach of the Year award while his agent works on getting him a contract extension.
The tenor in Atlanta has changed dramatically in 12 months. Going 28-25 between 2010 and 2013, with one bowl win and zero wins against Georgia, gave critics plenty of fodder and had some wondering how much longer Johnson could keep his job. But in that span, Georgia Tech played in one ACC championship game and posted winning conference records every season.
What was missing was a quarterback capable of running his preferred offensive style, the one met with groans still today. But quarterback Justin Thomas has been the catalyst for dramatic improvement in the triple-option offense, and an opportunistic defense has come into its own to lead Georgia Tech to its best season since 2009.
The Redemption of Paul Johnson, it seems, has been written.
"You're never going to please everybody," Johnson said in a recent phone interview with ESPN.com. "As soon as you lose a game or lose a couple games, they come back out. They don't go away. That's the same for everybody. I've been doing this for a long time, and there's a long track record, and I'm proud of it. I figure when it's not good enough, they'll get somebody else."
Johnson never forgot how to coach, even when he took shots from the naysayers. He ranks No. 9 among all active coaches and four behind Oklahoma's Bob Stoops in total wins (164). Since he arrived at Georgia Tech in 2008, the Jackets rank No. 4 in the ACC in conference wins and have never posted a losing record in conference play.
But he needed a season such as this to get his critics off his back and prove his offensive system still works -- because that offensive system has contributed to the way some view Johnson and, in turn, Georgia Tech. The Jackets were picked to finish fifth in the Coastal after two straight seven-win seasons.
Georgia Tech has never finished fifth in the Coastal, mind you.
"There have been so many misperceptions promoted for so long about, well, people catch up to the offense, and it's this, and it's that. Once you play it, you figure it out," Johnson said. "It's like anything. When people say it long enough, they want it to be true. A broken clock's right twice a day. … We beat Clemson 28-6. You're not going to see any headlines that say, ‘Well, they figured out the hurry-up offense. It's through now. That's the blueprint, they'll never score again.' Now if that's us, you get the, ‘Well, they figured it out, and that's it for that offense.'"
But even before Johnson arrived, Georgia Tech seemed to be routinely dismissed. The Jackets have gone to 18 straight bowl games and finished .500 or better in conference play for 20 straight years. Since the ACC established divisions in 2005, Georgia Tech has finished first or tied for first in the Coastal five times and is now playing in its fourth ACC title game.
Yet Georgia Tech has never been the preseason choice to win the Coastal.
"I do believe the best thing that might have happened to us this year is when we got picked so low in the preseason," athletic director Mike Bobinski said. "We were already well on our way to having a good offseason and having a better locker room, having a group of guys that are more together and honestly care about each other, play for each other and push each other harder more than we had in recent years. Adding that extra impetus of, ‘Hey, we're not getting a whole lot of respect from folks' was a nice little addition to the mix."
What happened in the offseason set the stage for where Georgia Tech is now. The Jackets had a mass exodus of players for a variety of reasons. But the players remaining grew tighter, and leadership from the seniors grew stronger. Safety Jamal Golden said in the past, players would not push as hard when adversity hit.
"This team is different than any team I've been on since I've been at Tech," Golden said. "Everybody's a lot closer. This team plays for each other, and it shows on the field."
They have taken their cues from Johnson and his no-nonsense approach. Johnson helped sell running back Synjyn Days on Georgia Tech because he was honest and upfront. Johnson was one of the few coaches who told Days he could play quarterback. But he willingly moved positions twice in his career when asked.
Now at B-back, Days has flourished in his senior season.
"I support Coach Johnson 100 percent, and I believe in him," Days said. "Obviously, things have been working out pretty good for us right now, so hopefully that [negative] stuff isn't going to be said this upcoming year."
Even if it is, Johnson will do what he has always done.