Former Georgia Southern head coach Paul Johnson will join his former players Tracy Ham and Adrian Peterson in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Johnson was one of four coaches in the 2023 class, announced Monday by the National Football Foundation.
“I’m just honored, not just for me, but for everyone who was involved in helping me achieve this,” Johnson said. “In my mind, it kind of validates your career, what you accomplished over a time frame at different places. Certainly, it wouldn’t have happened without some special players and assistant coaches along the way.”
Johnson was an assistant under Erk Russell and implemented the spread option offense that helped the Eagles to six 1-AA/FCS national championships. Johnson came back to Georgia Southern as head coach in 1996, winning two of those six national championships in 1999 and 2000. His teams won at least a share of the Southern Conference championship in all five seasons he led the Eagles.
“Georgia Southern certainly launched my coaching career,” Johnson said. “I was coaching high school and junior college, and Coach Russell asked me about coming on his staff. Back then there wasn’t a lot of money in it, and I told my wife Susan, we will give it till I get to be 30 and see where it is. By then I was the offensive coordinator at Hawaii, and it had all worked out.”
Much of the Eagles early success can be attributed to the spread option Johnson implemented, which he tailored around the skills of Ham, Georgia Southern’s record-setting quarterback.
“We developed the basic offense, which I have used since then at Georgia Southern,” Johnson said. “We were fortunate to have a great player in Tracy Ham, who rewrote so many records. Then when I went back as head coach, we had so many guys like Greg Hill, J.R. Revere, Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson, just so many great players and so much success. It was a special place and launched my career.”
Johnson went on to have success at both Navy and Georgia Tech. He won five Commander-in-Chief’s trophies in six seasons at Navy and took Georgia Tech to nine bowl appearances, including two Orange Bowls, and was named ACC Coach of the Year three times. Johnson finished his career just 10 wins shy of 200 with a career mark of 190-100.
Coming to Georgia Southern in 1983, Johnson soon after was named offensive coordinator under Russell. Johnson says he learned a lot under Coach Russell as an assistant, but his best advice came not long Johnson took over as head coach at Georgia Southern.
“When you get your first head coaching job, you want to set it up like you have seen everyone else,” Johnson said. “After our first game, I was at practice and Coach Russell came over after he had been at Snooky’s and was watching us while sitting on his car. He walked up to me a few minutes later and said ‘What are you doing?’ I was running back and forth between drills watching everything and asked him ‘what do you mean, coach?’
“He said ‘Get over there and coach those quarterbacks and call the offense. That’s what you’re good at and that is why you got this job. Go help the team.’ The next game we were playing App State and our starting quarterback Kenny Robinson broke his hand on the first play and we had to put Greg Hill in. I told the guys, I got it. From that point on, I called every play the whole time I was the head coach and did the offensive gameplan.”
Johnson went 62-10 in his five seasons at Georgia Southern and with all his accomplishments and success he says the Eagles loss in the 1998 championship game is one he would love to have back.
“Possibly the best team I ever coached was the 1998 team at Georgia Southern,” he said. “We averaged over 50 points per game and went to the championship with a 14-0 record. We got in the championship and turned the ball over seven times and it was just a fluke. We scored every time we had the ball and didn’t turn it over, and that one sticks in my mind as one I’d like to have another shot at.”
Johnson’s name has come up plenty of times on message boards as a possible coach or athletic director at Georgia Southern and while he is flattered, Johnson says he never came close to entertaining either role.
“I’d rather stick my hand in a fire than be an athletic director,” he said. “It’s something I thought during my coaching days, because I enjoy all sports, and thought it may be fun. Once you see how the sausage is made, though, and the inner workings, that is a tough job. I think Georgia Southern has a really good one there right now. He is really sharp and hopefully they can hold onto him for a while.”
As for coming back to Georgia Southern as head football coach?
“It would be like marrying the same women twice,” Johnson said. “I had someone tell me how much they revere me down in Statesboro and they’d build me a statue if I came back. I told him yeah, and they’d tear it down the first game we lost. I loved my time in Statesboro, and I told my wife that’s a place I’d love to stay part of the year, if it was a little warmer in the winter. I really loved the people down there and we had a great golf group over at Forest Heights. It’s a special place.”
The College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023 will be officially inducted on Dec. 5 at the 65th NFF Annual Awards Dinner in Las Vegas. His enshrinement will be commemorated at the College Football Hall of Fame, located in downtown Atlanta.