With the football season upon us, one of the biggest questions weighing on fans and others for the past two seasons has been how the players have handled the coaching change. “Usually, when you go somewhere and you take a job, if everything was great you wouldn’t be there. There are some issues and there are some good things,” said Head Coach Paul Johnson.
When George O’Leary left Tech after the 2001 season, Chan Gailey brought new energy to the program. It took O’Leary three full seasons (he was interim coach for six games in 1994 after Bill Lewis was fired) to establish Tech as a bowl team. In 1995, O’Leary went 6-5, 5-3 in the conference to finish fourth. He finished 5-6, 4-4 in 1996 and 7-5, 5-3 in 1997 to earn a bowl bid to the CARQUEST Bowl (currently the Champs Sports Bowl).
In O’Leary’s fourth year, Tech went 10-2, 7-1 to win a share of the ACC title and a post season ranking of 11, their highest since 1990. O’Leary left Tech for a job at Notre Dame before going to the University of Central Florida. The opening paved the way for former Athletics Director David Braine to hire Chan Gailey, “When Coach O’Leary left it was a little bit different. It was more of a surprise. We didn’t know and all of a sudden he is leaving to go take a job at Notre Dame. It was more unexpected than [the Gailey to Johnson] transition,” said former defensive back Jonathan Cox.
When Gailey came to the Flats, he brought an NFL system and an NFL mentality to a college campus- not the best idea in hindsight, “Gailey came from the NFL so he is a little bit more conservative. You won’t see him throw deep too much. They would run, run, run. When the run didn’t work, then they would throw it. It got us to a bowl game, but…,” Cox said.
Gailey had limited success in his tenure as a professional head coach, but did win a national championship as a college coach in Division II with Troy. Gailey’s tenure brought mixed results to Tech. In six seasons, the team went 44-32 and 28-20 in the conference. Since 2004, when Virginia Tech and Miami entered the conference, Tech has had the second best conference record in that time behind VT. But that did not stop the fans from getting on Gailey’s case.
In his first four seasons, Gailey won seven games every year, but he won none against Tech’s in-state rival UGA. Gailey finally broke through with a nine win season, but that season he also went from 9-2 to 9-5 with consecutive losses to Georgia, Wake Forest in the ACC Championship Game and West Virginia in the Gator Bowl, all loses coming by a combined nine points. Gailey went back to a seven win season in 2007 despite higher expectations with 17 returning starters. The season culminated inGailey’s sixth straight loss to Georgia and his firing by new Athletic Director Dan Radakovich.
Radakovich, with the help of Parker Executive Search, found Paul Johnson, who had been coaching at Navy for the previous six seasons. Johnson won two Football Championship Subdivision national titles in five years at Georgia Southern and a conference championship every year. At Navy, Johnson won the Commander in Chief’s Trophy, which goes to the academy with the best record against the other two academies, five out of the six years he was there.
Johnson’s arrival brings new energy to the campus, but not everyone felt the same about the energy. Johnson’s offense was notorious for running the ball most of the time. The change likly caused quarterback recruit Sean Renfree to commit to Duke, which was quickly followed by de-commits from receiver Chris Jackson and linebacker TJ Pridemore.
It also brought about transfers by tight end Colin Peek and quarterback Taylor Bennett, among others, because the system did not fit to their skill sets and positions.
“The problem is learning the new scheme, that’s the only problem with bringing in a new coach. So you have to kind of unlearn all of the things that you learned before, and on top of unlearning you have relearn something else. For someone that’s there, that’ll be the hardest part,” Cox said.
Coach Johnson’s track record has proven that winning follows him. At Navy, after the first season, Johnson won 43 games in the following five years—with a limited ability to recruit players that would fit his system. Johnson’s ability to coach an offense has been evident through his time at Hawaii, Southern Georgia and Navy where he went from a pass-oriented offense at Hawaii to a running one at Southern and Navy. When given the ability to recruit, Johnson should prove doubters wrong and become a force in the ACC.