When college football experts around the country talk about the best college football coaches in America, the conversation should begin with Navy head coach Paul Johnson. After all, what he has accomplished at the Naval Academy in five seasons has been of historic proportions.
Johnson took over a program that had posted a 1-20 record the previous two years before his arrival in 2002. After a 2-10 mark in his first year, the Navy football program has achieved what many thought was no longer possible at an Academy, as Johnson has brought the Midshipmen back into the national spotlight with a 35-15 (.700) record over the last four years and has led Navy to a school-record four-straight bowl games and a school-record four-consecutive Commander-In-Chief's Trophies. The 35 wins are the second most in program history over a four-year time span.
Johnson has dominated the other two Service Academies like no other coach in the school's annals posting a 9-1 (.900) overall record, including a perfect 5-0 mark against rival Army. Last year's senior class was the first in school history to post a perfect 8-0 mark against Army and Air Force.
Johnson's .744 career winning percentage (99-34) ranks 10th among all active coaches, while a win over Temple in the season opener this fall would make him the 26th-fastest coach to reach 100 wins in NCAA history.
Like a fine wine, Johnson's teams are better as they age. Over the last four years, Navy has posted a 10-2 (.833) record over the final three games of the season and has outscored the opposition, 464-246, in those contests. And if you give him time to prepare for an opponent, he is pretty tough to beat as well, as the Mids are 13-5 (.722) over the last four years when Johnson has more than a week to break down the other team's defense.
Navy's appearance in last year's Meineke Car Care Bowl was the Mids' fourth-straight bowl appearance with a different quarterback, marking just the fifth time in NCAA history that a team has made four or more bowl appearances with a different starting quarterback each season.
Johnson's teams have been successful off the field as well, as Navy ranks No. 1 in the country in graduation rates.
Johnson's triple option offense has been the backbone to the program's success as the Mids have led the nation in rushing three of the last five years. Last year, the Mids averaged a school-record 327.4 yards per contest.
In 2005, despite returning the fewest starters in the country, Johnson led the Midshipmen to an 8-4 record, a third-consecutive bowl game and a school-record second-straight bowl win.
The Mids were led by the No. 1 rushing attack in the country, piling up 318.7 rushing yards per contest, and a hard-hitting defense that made plays when it had to. The 2005 campaign also marked the second time in the previous three years that Navy led the nation in rushing. The Mids have never finished lower than third in the nation under Johnson.
In 2004, Navy posted a 10-2 record, tying the school record for wins set in 1905. The Mids defeated New Mexico, 34-19, in the Emerald Bowl, giving Navy just its fifth bowl win in school history.
Johnson was recognized for his coaching exploits when he was named the 2004 Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year.
Navy finished third in the country in rushing in 2004, averaging 289.5 yards per contest. The Mids also improved by leaps and bounds on defense. In 2004, the Mids finished 44th in total defense and 26th in scoring defense.
In 2003, Johnson led Navy to an 8-5 record and brought the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy back to Annapolis for the first time since 1981, propelling Navy to a bowl game (EV1.net Houston Bowl) for the first time since 1996.
The eight wins equaled Navy's win total for the previous four years combined and the six-game improvement was the second-best turnaround in the country. The Mids also became just the sixth team in NCAA history to go from a winless season to a bowl game in two years or less.
Johnson's potent triple option offense led the nation in rushing, averaging a then school-record 323.2 yards per contest. The Mids also set school records for rushing yards (4,202), yards per rush (5.5), rushing touchdowns (44), total offense (5,506), total offense per game (431.4) and yards per play (6.0).
Not to be overlooked is the defense, which made a dramatic improvement thanks to improved speed and the switch to a 3-4 defense. The Mids' most significant improvement came against the pass, as Navy ranked 14th in the country (180.23 yards per game) after ranking 61st in 2002. The defense also made major improvements in pass efficiency defense (from 116th to 42nd), total defense (100th to 42nd) and scoring defense (108th to 34th).
Johnson was recognized nationally for his coaching performance, as he was a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award, the Paul "Bear" Bryant Coach of the Year Award and the Associated Press Coach of the Year Award.
The seeds for 2003 were actually sewn at the end of the 2002 season as the Midshipmen showed great improvement throughout Johnson's initial campaign, which was capped off by a 58-12 rout of Army in the season finale.
The 58 points scored against the Black Knights were the mostin the annual Army-Navy game and the 46-point margin of victory was the second-biggest blowout in series history. Quarterback Craig Candeto rushed for an Army-Navy game and school-record six touchdowns in helping Johnson become the first coach from either school to win his first Army-Navy game as a head coach since 1982.
The Navy offense finished third in the nation in rushing, averaging 270.8 yards per game. The Mids scored 30 or more points on four occasions and nearly pulled off one of the biggest upsets in school history, losing to 10th-ranked Notre Dame in the final seconds, 30-23.
Johnson took over a program that was coming off the worst two-year span in its 123-year history (1-20) and had recorded just two winning seasons the last-20 years.
"The program didn't get the way it is overnight, and it's not going to change overnight," said Johnson. "But I am confident that you can win here. If I didn't believe that, I would have never accepted the job."
Director of Athletics Chet Gladchuk tabbed Johnson as Navy's 36th head football coach on Dec. 9, 2001. It was an announcement met with great fanfare from Naval Academy football fans around the world.
Johnson came to Navy from Georgia Southern, where he posted a 62-10 (.861) record, won two-straight I-AA National Championships (1999 and 2000), five-straight Southern Conference Championships and was named the Division I-AA National Coach of the Year four-consecutive times (1997-2000).
After Johnson took over as head coach at Georgia Southern in 1997, he returned the Eagle program to national prominence statistically and in the won-lost ledger. In addition to Georgia Southern's 62-10 mark, the Eagles scored 2,855 points (39.7 points per game), picked up 25,941 rushing yards (360.3 yards per game), 7,816 passing yards (108.6 yards per game) and 33,757 total yards (468.8 yards per game). GSU scored 380 touchdowns in the Johnson Era, an average of 5.3 per game. The Eagles' scoring margin under Johnson was +21.5 (39.7-18.5).
Johnson picked up a milestone victory in the 2000 I-AA National Championship Game against Montana. Not only did the 27-25 victory give Georgia Southern its second-straight national title, but it was Johnson's 50th-career win in four seasons. Only three other coaches in the history of Division I football have won 50 or more games in four seasons, as Johnson joined Walter Camp (1888-1891, 54-2 at Yale), George Woodruff (1892-1895, 53-4 at Penn) and Bob Pruett (1996-99, 50-4 at Marshall) on the exclusive list.
Johnson took over a Georgia Southern program in 1997 that was 4-7 the previous year and orchestrated a turnaround which ranks among the NCAA's best, directing the Eagles to a 10-3 record, equaling the school's best mark since 1989. His peers and media members justly rewarded his rebuilding efforts as he earned Southern Conference Coach-of-the-Year honors while also picking up national tributes from the American Football Coaches Association and American Football Quarterly.
In 1998, Johnson guided the Eagles to a perfect 11-0 regular-season record and the school's sixth NCAA Division I-AA National Championship Game appearance before finishing with a 14-1 mark. He directed a high-powered offensive unit which tied or broke 100 records during the campaign, and again earned the league's top coaching honor and received national praise as the recipient of The Sports Network's Eddie Robinson Award -- symbolic of the division's national coach-of-the-year selection.
In 1999, Johnson brought Georgia Southern back to the national championship game and this time won it, as the Eagles finished 13-2, broke 197 records and won the school's fifth national title. For his efforts, Johnson was honored as the 1999 American Football Coaches Association and Chevrolet I-AA National Coach of the Year.
The Eagles came back in 2000 and won their second-straight national championship, posting a 13-2 record. Johnson was named the American Football Coaches Association I-AA Coach of the Year.
In four-plus seasons, Johnson's squads broke or tied 389 individual and team school, conference, playoff or stadium records, ranked in the top 10 in 21 statistical categories and produced 31 All-Americans. The Eagles won an NCAA I-AA record 39-consecutive games at home, breaking their own mark of 38. Meanwhile, their 52 wins over those four seasons were the most in all of Division I.
Georgia Southern produced 300 yards or more of total offense in 53 of its last-59 games and picked up 400-plus yards of total offense in 45 of the last-59 contests. Fullback Adrian Peterson rushed for 6,736 yards in his career, the most in the history of Division I football.
Although lost at times in the glitz and glamour of Johnson's explosive offensive unit, Georgia Southern also had an excellent defense. The 2001 Georgia Southern defense ranked as one of the best at the school as it ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense (fourth), total defense (sixth) and pass defense (second). The defense allowed a school-record 12 points per game.
Johnson was Navy's offensive coordinator in 1995 and 1996 and his spread offense made an immediate impact, breaking five school records during the Mids' five-win season in 1995, equaling the most wins by a Navy team since 1990.
Navy came back in year two under Johnson and exploded, posting a 9-3 record, including a 42-38 victory over California in the Aloha Bowl. It was Navy's first winning season since 1982 and one of only two winning seasons the Mids had during a 19-year span (the other being in 1997 when Navy went 7-4 running the spread offense under the direction of Johnson protégé Ken Niumatalolo). Navy's appearance in the Aloha Bowl was the Mids' first bowl appearance since 1981 and just their ninth in school history. Navy finished the '96 season ranked fifth nationally in rushing offense (283.6 yards per game), 31st in total offense (407.7 yards per game) and 22nd in scoring offense (31.8 points per game). Quarterback Chris McCoy rushed for 1,228 yards and a school-record 16 rushing touchdowns, while fullback Omar Nelson rushed for 857 yards.
Though Johnson left for Georgia Southern after the 1996 season, his offense remained in tact for two more years, as McCoy became just the 10th quarterback in NCAA history to rush and pass for 1,000 yards in a season in 1997. McCoy had 20 rushing touchdowns in '97, an NCAA record for quarterbacks.
Prior to joining the Navy staff, Johnson spent eight seasons as the offensive coordinator at the University of Hawai'i (1987-94). He helped guide the Rainbows to their first Western Athletic Conference title and their first bowl appearance coordinating an explosive offense that broke or equaled over 160 school records.
While at Hawai'i, Johnson developed a successful offensive unit which earned top-20 I-A statistical rankings in scoring offense, total offense and rushing offense during six of his eight seasons. He earned Top Offensive Coach honors in the WAC and was named one of the top-10 assistant coaches in the country by The Sporting News.
Arriving at Georgia Southern in 1983 as defensive line coach, Johnson was promoted to offensive coordinator in 1985. Under his tutelage, record-setting quarterback Tracy Ham and the Eagle offense rewrote the school record book 75 times while averaging 435 total yards and 36 points per contest. Georgia Southern rolled to a combined 26-4 (.867) record while capturing a pair of I-AA titles in 1985-86.
Johnson's coaching career began when he was offensive coordinator and line coach at his alma mater Avery County (N.C.) High School in 1979-80. He accepted the offensive coordinator's position at Lees-McRae Junior College in 1981, leading his offensive unit to a sixth-place national standing among NJCAA total offense leaders.
Johnson, a native of Newland, N.C., earned his Bachelor of Science degree in physical education from Western Carolina in 1979 and a Master's of Science degree in health and physical education from Appalachian State in 1982.
He and wife, Susan, are the parents of a daughter, Kaitlyn (14).