What are you looking for in a head football coach? Given the reasons UNC fired Bunting it is clear that fans loved the way he ran a team in terms of discipline but were very pessimistic about his ability to coach the team on the field. UNC was well behaved but failed to win consistently enough or at all by the time the current season was halfway done. So when the search for a new coach opened up officials and fans both were looking for someone who could discipline his players, field a winning team, and represent UNC as the face of the football program. Now, in terms of specifics, UNC also has to pay attention to things like salary since there is a cap to what a football can garner at North Carolina. Another issue is whether UNC wants an experienced head coach who is a big name or a winning coach from a lower tier who can come in and build UNC into a winner. The pros to the former are obvious but the drawback is a big name coach would be looking for a better job in short order. The upside to a coach on the rise is he could be enticed to buy into the program for the long haul but such a hire is also a riskier proposition. There are any number of other issues such as the ability to recruit, local ties, and what kind of offensive or defensive philosophies he might have used in the past.
Having considered all of these factors, I am of the opinion that the best man to hire would be Navy's Paul Johnson. The reason why are after the jump.
Johnson has shown an ability to win at every level. Johnson has had two head coaching stints in his career. His first job was at I-AA Georgia Southern where he won back-to-back national championships and posted a 62-10 record. While at Georgia Southern, Johnson's teams were extremely productive on offense and also ranked in the top ten statistically in key defensive areas. In my opinion, winning is winning no matter what level it occurs at and while it may not always translate to the next level, in this case we know it has because in 2002 Johnson took the job at the Naval Academy and has found success with a school which has not enjoyed much success on a consistent basis. In the history of football at the Naval Academy, the Midshipmen have been to bowl games in consecutive seasons only one time 1981 and 1982. Johnson has taken Navy there three times since taking the job, all in consecutive years. Now granted it is easier to get to bowls now than it once was but it also should be noted that UNC has not been to consecutive bowls since Mack Brown left. Whether or not making it to a bowl is difficult is not the issue, making it period is the essential first step towards building up to contending in the ACC and going to more prominent bowls. Johnson has done that first step at Navy but anything beyond that would be difficult to attain because of the limitations on what kind of talent he can bring to Annapolis.
Another part of being a winning coach is being able to do no matter what kind of hand you have been dealt by adjusting your schemes and style to the talent you have. This is why Bunting is on his way out because he was unable to maximize what he had by coaching smart and scheming to the skills sets he had. Johnson does not seem to have this particular deficiency and was able to take a team that was 1-20 in the two seasons before he arrived to three straight bowl appearance and a likely fourth this season. In his fifth season at Navy, Johnson is 33-24 overall going 2-10, 8-5, 10-2, 8-4, and at present 5-3 going into the Duke game this weekend. I also should point out that Johnson passes the "third season" test I applied in my case against Bunting. This standard dictates that by the third season you should post a winning record. It was that way for Dick Crum, Mack Brown, and even Carl Torbush but not for John Bunting. Paul Johnson was 10-2 in his third season at Navy which is a stunning accomplishment when you consider that he is still sifting through the last guy's baggage at that point. In my opinion Johnson could easily take a team like UNC and make progress.
This is a bit of an unknown with Johnson since he is at Navy where the players are of the highest character of any in college football. Still one could reasonably assume that Johnson subscribes to a high level of discipline for his teams. A quick search of on Google for items related to players in trouble under Johnson yielded very little but that in itself is not an accurate measure. The question that must be asked is how Johnson might deal with players who find trouble while at UNC where there is more opportunity to get into trouble, where there is no military structure in place and where the players, by nature of need for talent, are possibly prone to make mistakes? Based on what we have seen of Johnson, he does not strike me as the kind of person who would turn a blind eye to certain behavior. Johnson has a unassuming and humble personality which would be a good fit in Chapel Hill. I will feel more comfortable with Johnson handling team issues than I would Rodriguez or even Davis despite the credit he gets for cleaning up Miami.
Coaching and Schemes
If there is one thing you know about coaches who win at different levels is that they handle the coaching side of things very well. Since Johnson won a national title twice it shows he is able to handle the pressure of playoff football and a big game atmosphere. Since coming to Navy, he has shown an ability to take a team which may lack the talent of other schools and still win enough games to get to three straight bowl games. A program that loses 20 games and by the third season is winning 10 games in one year is benefiting more from great coaching than from an upgrade in talent because by the third season there still has not been a complete turnover from the previous coaching tenure. Johnson appears to be the kind of coach who can adapt his schemes to maximize the players he has much the same way Jim Grobe has at Wake Forest.
Now the main concern that most people criticize Johnson for is his implementation of a the triple option. There is a groundswell of folks, the N&O's Caulton Tudor included, that do not think the offense will work at UNC or win many games. There seems to be some conjecture that such an offensive scheme will have trouble succeeding in the ACC where the defenses tend to be quicker. Of course Tudor also points out that Jim Grobe is running a similar offense at Wake Forest. Wake Forest is 7-1. Navy is 5-3 and will probably beat Duke this weekend to get to 6-3. So tell me again why there is concern about whether or not this offense will win games? Navy is also the 2nd most powerful rushing attack in the country behind West Virginia, who employs a spread offense which is a form of the option attack which no one complains about when talk of Rodriguez coming to Chapel Hill arises. In fact the N&O featured Johnson in an article on Wednesday which pointed out that the Navy schemes are similar to both WVU and Florida without the same level of talent.
Johnson's spread-option offense -- which he used to win two I-AA championships at Georgia Southern and to lead Navy to three consecutive bowl berths -- is a combination of run-and-shoot, option and play-action.
Some fans have been quick to label it a boring one-dimensional attack; after all, the Midshipmen have finished in the top three in the nation in rushing yards per game the past three years and currently rank second in the country, averaging 310.9 yards a game. But using the same system at Hawaii from 1987-94, Johnson's offense broke or equaled more than 160 Rainbows records -- many via the air, when he had quarterbacks with the talent to pass.
Johnson said his offense is actually similar to what third-ranked West Virginia and seventh-ranked Florida run out of a shotgun formation -- theirs with faster, bigger, more-heralded players.
"What's great about this offense is that you can emphasize whatever best fits your people," Johnson said. "... If you've got a great quarterback, of course you're going to throw; that's what you do to win. If your personnel is better rushing the ball; that's what you do, because that's what you do to win."
The most impressive part of Johnson's statement is that he looks at his offense as a framework that can be molded to fit the talent you have in house. This is also a offense Johnson used to win two I-AA national titles and turn Navy into a winning program for three, probably four straight seasons. So in short, if whatever offense he is running churns out wins then I say bring it on. One concern some have is that this kind of offense will not attract high caliber recruits on offense since it is not an offense which can necessarily prepare you for the NFL. Current UNC QB commitment Mike Paulus is seen as a player who will de-commit if Johnson were hired sending the signal that it will be difficult to recruit to UNC with this offense in place. I agree that is a concern but as he stated above the offense can be adjusted for the personnel and/or situation such as better ACC defenses. So in short, the offense may concern some, for me it does not seem to be enough of an issue to constitute Johnson as a huge risk.
On the defensive side, Johnson would probably need to make a great hire in this area since he tends to focus more on offense. Navy has been ranked anywhere from the middle to lower third in the major statistical categories on defense. This is not surprising but something that would need to be addressed in terms a good defensive coaching staff whether that is the present group he has with him now who may need to see more talent on the field or someone else similar to Jon Tenuta at Georgia Tech who was the DC under Bunting in 2001. Again, this is part of the coaching job where Johnson would need to make good personnel decisions with your staff and probably the more prevelant of the unknowns about him at this point.
This is probably the biggest question mark Johnson faces in a move to a major BCS school. Recruiting players into Navy is most likely difficult since graduation from Annapolis usually entails some time on active duty. The other issue is that Johnson would have to build his recruiting apparatus up once he got to UNC and take some time to build relationships with high school coaches in NC and other states. So I would imagine there would be some adjustments made and a possible dip in recruiting if he took the job but again I see no real reason to doubt that this coach will not take the proper steps to create a viable recruiting system to bring quality players into UNC. One point a lot of people forget is that the name of the school alone grants a coach instant credibility, especially in terms of in-state recruiting which is by far the most important aspect. Like I said before the guy is a winner and like every other part of the job, Johnson is savvy enough to be successful recruiting the players he needs to win.
Odds and Ends
Among the other aspects it should be noted that Johnson is a North Carolina native and hold two degrees, an undergrad from Western Carolina and a graduate degree from Appalachian State. The home state connection can be a strong selling point both in attracting him to take the job and possibly in keeping him long term. The propensity of a coach to take this job and then make a move somewhere else is a genuine concern. And there is no assurance that Johnson would not eventually make that move but in his case even ff he is successful, he strikes me as someone who might stay longer than Butch Davis or Rich Rodriguez who would probably bolt within five years. I would also make the case that, Johnson, being 49 years old might look upon this job as one he could settle for the long haul.
As for his demeanor, indications are that he is quiet and humble. There are many types of coaching personalities out there some outspoken and entertaining other flamboyant and somewhat embarrassing at times. Chuck Amato and the now fired John L. Smith at Michigan State seem to fit the latter type. Mack Brown and Steve Spurrier fit nicely into the former group. Johnson just comes off and a straightforward guy who understands how to address the media and does not tend to make a fool of himself thus saving the school he represents the PR headache.
On the issue of salary considerations, his paycheck at Navy is $1 million annually. Using Roy Williams $1.5 million salary as the upper limit for the football coach, UNC can easily afford to give Johnson a nice raise if he decided to don the baby blue. At that point it would be a matter of keeping him happy and every effort should be made to keep him under long term contract.
Is hiring Johnson a risk? Of course it is. There are no guarantees in this world and while Johnson success in his two head coaching stints have been impressive, there is always a lingering possibility he might not be the right fit for UNC. However, based on what I have observed of Johnson both in terms of the way he runs a team, his skills as a coach and a general feel that he is simply a coach who flat knows how to win, I think Dick Baddour would be wise to focus his attention on making Paul Johnson the next head football coach at North Carolina. Yes, guys like Rodriguez or Davis might be better candidates in many ways but I also think they are ultimately looking to use UNC to pursue other opportunities. You simply do not get the sense that Johnson would do the same thing and though a stint at UNC might open the door for him to take a job somewhere else, I do think he would come to UNC for the UNC job only.
So while there are concerns about his offensive scheme and his recruiting ability, I personally think the former has been seriously misrepresented in the media and the latter will work itself out in short order.
Paul Johnson is the best candidate available and in my opinion the best fit across the board for where I am convinced UNC wants to go with it's football program.