Newland native Paul Johnson, a 1979 graduate of Western Carolina University who went on to become an acclaimed college football coach, has a new addition to his already crowed trophy case. That’s because Johnson, winner of several coaching honors during his career, recently received his alma mater’s Professional Achievement Award.
Johnson, who retired as head coach at the Georgia Institute of Technology (better known as Georgia Tech) in 2018 after 11 seasons leading the Yellow Jackets, accepted the award Saturday, Nov. 5, as part of 2022 Homecoming activities.
“Our recipient is no stranger to post-season honors, as Paul Johnson has received numerous awards in his legendary career as a college football coach,” Allison Hinson, president of the WCU Alumni Association, said at the presentation. “Actually, we have wanted to present Paul with this award for several years, but he was always busy on Saturdays during the fall. So, we waited until he retired to recognize him for his accomplishments.”
And the list of accomplishments is long. He was named Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year three times – in 2008, 2009 and 2014 – while leading the Georgia Tech program, and CBS Sports selected him National Coach of the Year in 2008. His Yellow Jackets squads earned nine bowl game appearances, three bowl wins, three Atlantic Coast Championship games and 82 victories.
Prior to joining Georgia Tech, Johnson was head football coach at the U.S. Naval Academy for six years, taking over the Midshipmen in 2002. He inherited a program coming off the worst two-year stretch in the academy’s 123-year football history, with one win and 20 losses. Johnson quickly turned the ship around, compiling a 43-19 record with five bowl appearances and two bowl victories in his final five seasons in Annapolis. He was named Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year in 2004 after leading Navy to a 10-2 record, tying a school record for victories.
His head coaching career began with five seasons at then-Southern Conference member Georgia Southern, leading the Eagles from 1997 through 2001. His teams won five straight conference titles and two NCAA Division I-AA national championships, in 1999 and 2000. In his five years at Georgia Southern, Johnson was named the Division I-AA National Coach of the Year four times (1997-2000).
“At Georgia Southern, Paul took over a program that was 4-7 before his arrival, but tallied a record of 62 wins and 10 losses under his watch – several of those victories coming at the expense of our Catamounts,” Hinson said in introducing him the Homecoming awards ceremony. “Behind the strength of his ‘flex-bone’ spread option offense, he is considered one of the most innovative coaches in college football.”
Johnson is undefeated in games against Western Carolina University. His Georgia Southern teams beat WCU five years in a row, and his Georgia Tech squad downed the Catamounts 63-21 in 2011. When asked if he felt a tad bit guilty for beating his alma mater, he replied, “I always wanted the team I was coaching to win. No angst.”
He has shown love to WCU in other ways, making a $100,000 contribution toward the turf replacement in E.J. Whitmire Stadium in 2019.
In addition to the coaching honors and WCU Professional Achievement Award, Johnson is a nominee for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. He is among nine coaches and 80 former players included on the 2023 Major College Football Bowl Subdivision ballot. Inductees selected for the 2023 class will be announced in early 2023.
Awards and honors are somewhat like children; it can be difficult to single one out as the proudest accomplishment. “I have been fortunate enough to have won several accolades and I’m proud of all of them. If I had to pick only one, I’d say the College Football Hall of Fame nomination,” Johnson said. “It’s quite an honor to be on the ballot and in my mind it’s a reflection of all the people I had a chance to work with.”
The same sentiment applies to players Johnson has coached over his career, which began as offensive coordinator at his hometown high school, Avery County High. His Georgia Tech teams produced 19 National Football League draft picks and his Georgia Southern generated one of the two NFL running backs named Adrian Peterson. “I wouldn’t even begin to single out any individual players,” Johnson said.
Prior to becoming a head coach, he served as offensive coordinator at Georgia Southern, the University of Hawaii, Navy and Lees-McRae College. His only position on the defensive side of the ball was as defensive line coach at Georgia Southern in 1983 and 1984.
One of only a few college football coaches who did not play the game collegiately, Johnson was a member of his high school football team. And unlike many college students who change their majors several times before selecting a career path, Johnson said he always planned to go into teaching and coaching after graduating from WCU with a bachelor’s degree in physical education.
He met his wife, the former Susan Propst, when both were attending Western Carolina, Susan as a social work major who graduated in 1980. They married in 1980 in her hometown of Shelby and their daughter, Kaitlyn, was born in 1993. They currently reside in Linville. Johnson was a member of the Kappa Alpha Order at WCU and went on earn a master’s degree in health and physical education from Appalachian State University in 1982.
So, what’s the secret to his success and longevity following a nearly 40-year prowling the sidelines of the gridiron at stops all across the country? “I enjoyed the competition with football and it never really felt like work,” Johnson said. When asked if he thought the coaching bug might bite him again and prompt him to grab a coach’s whistle and clipboard, he said, “I have no plans to come back right now, but I learned never to say never.”