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Opinion Week: Maybe Paul Johnson should have retired after 2016

The future Legend of the Flats didn’t exactly end his Tech career on a high note

NCAA Football: TaxSlayer Bowl-Kentucky vs Georgia Tech
A much better ending.
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

//closes eyes, sighs deeply

Okay. Look. Paul Johnson, master of the flexbone, is retired now. His list of accomplishments at Georgia Tech is not short. Four division championships and one conference championship. Ending long losing streaks against Georgia and Florida State. 12 wins over top 25 teams, 5 of which came against top 10 teams. Under Paul Johnson, this happened, as did all of these. In an era where Institute support for the program was at or near its nadir, Johnson consistently reeled in 3-star or lower talent and parleyed that into several victories against teams stacked with blue chippers. That he led the 2014 team to 11 wins, a top ten finish, two upsets over top ten ranked SEC teams, and a near victory over a playoff participant during that time is a modern miracle, the level of which is still not fully understood or appreciated by a very large chunk of this fanbase. The last eleven years of Georgia Tech football were something to watch, and I am very thankful I was here to witness it all.

All that said.... It wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world if Johnson had decided to call it a career after dumping Kentucky in the 2016 Gator Bowl.

Seriously. Let’s start with everything that let up to that moment. 2016 was one wild roller coaster ride of a season. Remember waking up at the butt-crack of dawn to watch Georgia Tech kick off against Boston College in Dublin? Even on a different continent, the Yellow Jackets would not be spared from a noon kick. But it was worth it to watch Dedrick Mills score the game winner off the toss with 36 seconds remaining. You just knew he was going to be a star. And after easy wins over Mercer and Vanderbilt, it looked like Tech was poised for another turnaround after 2015’s voodoo cursed, injury plagued season.

Then Clemson came to town. They were busy putting together a championship run and didn’t have time to waste on things like letting Tech gain yards or score points. The following week was Miami’s turn to visit Atlanta, and all anyone remembers from that game is the Hurricanes strip-sacking Thomas and returning the fumble for a touchdown, kicking off, letting the Jackets run one play, and then, on the next, forcing a fumble and recovering it for a touchdown. Moving on from that, the following week Tech visited Pitt, and dumb Pitt things happened, and the Jackets lost, again.

Georgia Tech had turned a 3-0 start into 3-3, and after who-cares wins against Georgia Southern (the bad, Tyson Summers version) and Duke came a thrashing at the hands of somehow eventual Coastal champion North Carolina. That dropped the Jackets to 5-4. The remaining games: at Virginia Tech, vs. Virginia, at georgia. That Hoos team was terrible, finished 2-10, and were disposed of accordingly. But that game in Blacksburg? Against the 14th ranked Hokies? Buddy, that was an L. And that was before all the missing personnel. First, Mills, the starting B-back, was suspended. Then starting center Freddie Burden’s name made the injury list. Finally, on the day of the game, it was announced Thomas was injured and wouldn’t start. That L? Yeah, I had my pen on the paper for that one. Matthew Jordan didn’t care, and Tech won by ten points anyway.

And that game in Athens? I’ve already written 2200 words on it, so here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: Kirby Smart was the new man in charge after the big wigs there got tired of winning so much, and if he thought he was never going to have any trouble with Tech, he was proven wrong very quickly.

Like their city’s namesake, Georgia Tech had risen from the ashes. Their efforts were rewarded with a spot in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, where Tech finally exorcised their Jacksonville demons, and Johnson came this close to fighting Mike Stoops.

It’s a storybook ending: Johnson finished the season 4-0, beating the hot new kids in Blacksburg and Athens and notching a decisive bowl victory over an SEC team on New Year’s Eve. What better time to say “you know what, I’ve done it all, I don’t need to prove anything more to y’all,” and call it quits then right then?

Because after the trophy celebration was over, new years were celebrated, and people made their orderly exit from the city of Jacksonville, you had to wonder: what was next? Justin Thomas, possibly the most talented quarterback to ever play under Johnson, was graduating, and for the first time, the question of “who’s the next quarterback?” didn’t have a clear solid answer. Kirby Smart was consolidating power and talent in Athens. And then came the transfers. It started with co-starting B-back Marcus Marshall, and was in double digits when the dust finally settled. Maybe it was a sign that it was time for a change, but it was a sign ignored.

Those last two years didn’t work out well for anyone involved. Mills never saw the field again; having received a third strike, he was dismissed from the team in August, just before the 2017 season was set to begin. Matthew Jordan, seemingly the heir to the QB throne, got hurt, and TaQuon Marshall was named starter. Unfortunately, he would end up being Tech’s least successful quarterback under Johnson. The other playmakers from that 2016 team never really made the same impact in future seasons. Georgia Tech finished exactly 12-12 over Johnson’s final two seasons, punctuated by a totally lifeless loss in the Motor City Bowl, where they ended up after getting passed up by several higher tier bowls. As far as endings go, it’s pretty much the exact opposite of what 2016 would have been.

So one has to wonder, what if Johnson had retired after 2016? Georgia Tech almost certainly wouldn’t have hired Florida defensive coordinator Geoff Collins, so it’s very possible the Waffle House Institute of Technology never becomes a thing. No way Tech was pulling in someone like Tom Herman, but maybe Todd Stansbury offers Jeff Brohm better money than Purdue AD Mike Bobinski could. Regardless, Tech would still be in for the same offensive transition it’s facing now, just two years earlier. 2017-18 probably wouldn’t have looked any better in the win/loss columns, but whatever new coach would have their system fully installed by 2019. Ultimately, I think Georgia Tech is better off now, with Collins at the helm. But also, ultimately, I think Paul Johnson would have been better off if he had taken a bow after that win in Jacksonville.