STATESBORO – The last time Paul Johnson walked off Glenn Bryant Field at Paulson Stadium as Georgia Southern head football coach, there wasn’t a second deck in the north stands. There wasn’t a Ted Smith Family Football Operations Center in the east end zone.
There was also natural grass on the playing surface. And most of the students in the bursting-at- the-seams student section to watch the Georgia Southern Eagles take on rival Georgia State weren’t even born when the option master walked to the then Lupton Building locker rooms to address his team after a game for one final time.
And an indoor practice facility? Not even a pipe dream in 2001.
The more than 23,000 fans in attendance, though, greeted the former Eagles head coach warmly and loudly as he was honored for his induction into the National Football Foundation’s College Hall of Fame during the game.
“There are a lot of great memories here,” Johnson said on the sidelines of Paulson just after the university honored his achievement. “A lot of the players came back and it was great to see those guys. We had tremendous fun here and a lot of success.”
Johnson made his mark as the architect of the Eagles’ patented offense, which helped secure the program’s first two FCS/IAA national championships in 1985-86. He was hired to run Hawaii’s offense, and after a stop as Navy’s offensive coordinator, Johnson returned to Statesboro in 1996, beginning a five-year run that included two more national championships, a runner-up finish and sharing or winning outright the Southern Conference championship each year.
Johnson was honored two nights later at Georgia Tech, where he spent half of his head coaching career and led the Yellow Jackets to two Orange Bowls and three ACC championship game appearances, getting a long and loud standing ovation from the fans at Bobby Dodd Stadium/Hyundai Field during Tech’s game with North Carolina.
There have been a number of changes to the Georgia Southern program since Johnson left in December 2001 for Navy. There have been a number of changes to college football after Johnson’s last game as a head coach, a Quick Lane Bowl loss to Minnesota in 2018 – the transfer portal, name, image and likeness (NIL) contracts and rampant conference realignment.
He was inducted into the Georgia Southern Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010, and returned to Paulson to receive that honor.
“It’s crazy the way it’s grown,” he said of the Eagles football program. “Even from 2010, it’s grown. They are doing a great job with the facilities.”
Johnson was joined during the celebration by Southern’s two other members of the College Football Hall of Fame – quarterback Tracy Ham, who led Johnson’s offense in 1985-86, and running back Adrian Peterson, who helped take the Eagles under Johnson to three national championship games.
Ham also was Johnson’s first quarterbacks coach upon his return to Southern, before he was lured back to the Canadian Football League.
“It’s just fun to see everybody. Tracy worked for me a for a brief stint and he recruited Adrian, so I owe him a big part of my success,” Johnson quipped.
To say the Eagles use a different approach now then under Johnson is an understatement. Through 12 games of the 2023 season, the Eagles completed 344 passes. In Johnson’s last season at Southern, the Eagles attempted 131 – in 14 games.
Through eight games of the 2023 season, the Eagles have 126 first downs via passing. They had 39 first downs through the air for all of 2001.
But some other numbers are not so far off. Georgia Southern averaged 37.5 points and 411 yards per game in Johnson’s final season. In 2023, through the regular season, the Eagles are averaging 30.9 points per game and 422.5 yards per game.
“Whatever it takes to win,” Johnson said. “I told Adrian he looks like he could play, but I’m not sure they’d hand it to him,” he added with a grin.
Returning to Paulson also brings back more fond memories for Johnson. His teams lost just twice at home in five years – his second game as head coach and his last at Southern. In between, though, the Eagles fashioned an enviable home record.
“We won 28 straight games here. It was so much fun,” he said. “Like I said, I got to be around some great people.”
Johnson acknowledged he misses the competitiveness that football brought. An accomplished golfer, going back to his coaching days, he plays about four days a week.
“Not getting any better,” Johnson, who once sported a 2 handicap, said.
His trip to Statesboro was part of a whirlwind week in which all three programs, including Navy, where he served as head coach honored him for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame.
“I feel like I’m on concert somewhere,” he said.
His next stop, after the December 5 induction ceremony in Las Vegas, will be Arizona, where he spends the winters, before returning to his home not far from where he grew up in western North Carolina.