When Vanderbilt named Bobby Johnson its new football coach in December 2001, Tennessee Coach Phillip Fulmer called Paul Johnson, who had just been hired by Navy. "We were all scared Vanderbilt was going to hire you," Fulmer told him. "We didn't want to have to prepare for that stuff every year."
Johnson, now in his third season with the Midshipmen, had earned the reputation of an offensive guru during his five seasons at Georgia Southern, where he guided the Eagles to a 62-10 record and two Division I-AA national championships. But while Johnson was greatly respected by his peers, he wasn't getting much attention from athletic directors who were hiring football coaches.
The offense that made Johnson's teams ultra-successful was also his biggest obstacle to landing a more lucrative job in the Division I-A ranks. Over the past 20 years, Johnson has fine-tuned the triple-option spread offense, which has become as rare in college football as two-way players. Most Division I-A schools have become enamored with the passing game, which many athletic directors believe makes for more exciting football and greater ticket sales.
"If people really believe that, I think it's really funny," Johnson said. "If you went to any school where we've been and asked the fans what they thought about our offense, they'd tell you they were pretty excited watching us play. To me, I'd think you'd just want to win games."
Johnson is getting the last laugh now. Since inheriting a Navy football program that had won one game in its two previous seasons -- the Midshipmen's 1-20 record in 2000 and 2001 was the worst two-year mark in the program's 122-year history -- Johnson has guided his teams to 14 victories. Navy was the second-most improved football team in Division I-A last year, improving from 2-10 to 8-5 and winning the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 1981. This season, the Midshipmen are 4-0 for the first time since 1979 entering tonight's nationally televised game against Air Force at Falcon Stadium.
"This is the best Navy football team I've seen in a long, long time," Air Force Coach Fisher DeBerry said.
DeBerry isn't the only one noticing Navy's vast improvement during the past two seasons. After last season, Johnson was contacted about interviewing for at least two coaching vacancies. Duke boosters inquired about his interest in replacing Blue Devils coach Carl Franks, but Johnson said he wasn't interested, and the school promoted interim coach Ted Roof. Johnson declined to identify the other school that contacted him. Navy gave Johnson a two-year contract extension last November, and his contract at the academy now runs through the 2009 season.
"Whenever I've taken a job, I've always tried to keep that job and tried to do the best I can," Johnson said. "If a job comes along that intrigues you, you deal with it then."
Even though Navy led the nation in rushing last season (the Midshipmen are ranked seventh through four games this year), some coaches wonder whether Johnson's offense would work at a more established program in one of the sport's power conferences. Air Force and Rice also run the triple option, but Navy is unique in employing spread formations. Because of the service academies' military requirements, and Rice's high academic standards, those programs have difficulty recruiting the same players as programs such as Oklahoma and Texas. So teams such as Air Force and Navy overcome their lack of talent and depth by running the option, which requires discipline and execution as much as strength and speed.
"What the option does is it neutralizes talent," South Carolina Coach Lou Holtz said. "People cannot defend the option just because they're athletic and because they're just going to run down the ballcarrier. They must play disciplined defense."
While Holtz coached at Notre Dame, he used the option attack to lead the Fighting Irish to the 1988 national championship. Holtz said he has been reluctant to use the option at South Carolina, even as the Gamecocks have struggled to score points during his tenure there. Holtz said his decision to use a pro-style passing offense is as much about recruiting as scoring.
"Why doesn't a school in the [Southeastern Conference] run it?" Holtz said. "One, you aren't going to be able to recruit the great quarterback, you're not going to get the great running back, you're not going to get the great receiver. You're going to have difficulty recruiting solid offensive linemen that want to pass protect and block and go to the NFL. It hurts you in recruiting. That's the reason we don't go to it more. I think if you have limited personnel, go do it, but understand you're not going to get any better personnel."
Johnson said his offense is tailor-made for running backs -- Georgia Southern's Adrian Peterson rushed for 6,736 yards in four seasons, the most in Division I history -- and mobile quarterbacks. Receivers often get single coverage from secondaries, giving them an opportunity to make big plays.
"I don't know why this offense wouldn't work with better players," Johnson said.
Former Georgia coach Jim Donnan, now a college football analyst for ESPN, faced Johnson's offense when the Bulldogs played Georgia Southern in the 2000 season opener. Even with future NFL Pro Bowl players Kendrell Bell, Richard Seymour and Marcus Stroud on defense, Georgia allowed the Eagles to run for 190 yards in the Bulldogs' 29-7 victory.
"I've always been a lot more concerned about players than systems," Donnan said. "Execution has always been a real staple of his offense. I think Paul Johnson would be successful if he was coaching in the NFL. He's just a thorough coach. He knows the option like [Southern California offensive coordinator] Norm Chow knows the passing game."
Ralph Friedgen, whose Maryland team faces Navy next season, has no doubts about Johnson.
"Paul is a good football coach," Friedgen said. "Paul can coach any offense. What happens is these guys get labeled and everyone is afraid to give them a job at a major school because they are going to run that offense. It doesn't matter what you do; it matters how you do it."
Johnson scoffs at the belief that his offense has reached its ceiling in college football. Johnson said the offense gives his team an advantage because opponents don't see the option attack very often and have problems preparing for it. The offense also relieves pressure on the defense by generating time-consuming possessions.
"How are you going to beat Florida State and Miami doing the same thing?" Johnson said. "You're not going to out-recruit them."
For now, Johnson said he's content coaching his offense at Navy. But in the back of his mind, he, too, wonders how the option would work at one of college football's powers.
"I'd like to say 'I told you so' to the people who say you can't win doing this," Johnson said. "I think that would be hilarious."