Turnaround At the Academy

When Paul Johnson announced that he was leaving his job as head football coach at Georgia Southern (GSU) to coach the Naval Academy team with a 1-20 record, people were skeptical. "Everyone said, 'you're nuts,'" he recalls. Being told it would be impossible to replicate his winning seasons at GSU made him want to go all the more. Johnson figured he had done as much as he could do at GSU, where the Eagles won two straight NCAA Division I-AA titles.

Teaching at a military school where special favors were not lavished on athletes was a different matter. Visitors to the Academy may see a plaque that states, "Enter here to learn, go forth to serve." Giving up two hours of engineering studies for football practice is something you have to read between the lines.

Attitude plays a big role according to Johnson. "These guys want to win," he says. "They're tired of losing." Now, he notes, "the intensity level is different."

Anyone familiar with Johnson's background would not be surprised. From day one, Johnson's career has taken place on a football field. Starting as coach for his high school in Avery, N.C., he moved up to assistant coach at both the University of Hawaii and the Naval Academy, then was offered the head coach position at GSU. Along the way, he has picked up several honors, including the national Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year award.

Since Johnson arrived in 2001, the Academy's record has soared to 8-5, taking home some savored victories along the way, such as a 28-25 win over Air Force and the ultimate prize, a decisive triumph (34-6) over Army. These wins earned the team a trip to the White House in April to meet President Bush, who awarded the players with the Commander-In-Chief's trophy. The Academy had last claimed the trophy in 1996 and had won it only once before in 1974.

"I don't take excuses," he says. Johnson reports the pleas he hears from players: "I have four tests tomorrow, I have this, I have that." His response is unyielding. "Just get it done."

The coach has his own cheerleading section provided by his wife Susan and 11-year-old daughter Kaitlyn, who travel to all the games. His daughter is a passionate fan. Like the spunky daughter of high school coach Herman Boone in Remember the Titans, she is not shy about expressing her opinion. Johnson recounts when she praised quarterback Craig Candeto after a game for the way he handled the ball. "I think she takes it harder than some of the guys when we lose," he jokes.

The team returns without seniors such as Candeto, who was named Military Quarterback of the Year, but Johnson has faith in his team. "We have a good nucleus coming back," he says, adding that he hopes the returning seniors can demonstrate the same leadership as those who left. Despite the recent string of victories, the coach declines to make any predictions for the upcoming season. He prefers to take it one game at a time.


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Powerboat Show
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Renaissance Festival
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County Fair

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