After a decade in Atlanta, Paul Johnson is stepping away from Georgia Tech football.
The long-tenured head coach had floated around the hot seat earlier this fall. After a rough start, Georgia Tech rebounded to finish 6-2 in its last eight games, to get to 7-5 on the year, and second place in the ACC Coastal.
It seemed like that would be enough to keep Johnson’s job safe, and it may have been, but whether or not Georgia Tech was involved in the decision as has been speculated a bit, he has decided to retire.
In Johnson’s statement, he said he was ready to “take a break” from coaching, which seems to indicate that he may pop up elsewhere. Either way, we now have one of the most interesting openings in college football.
Johnson’s option-based system was unique to the Power Five, and the team has been built to run it. It shouldn’t be lost on Georgia Tech brass that as a school in Atlanta proper, they may not be utilizing their serious geographic advantages by running it though, even with the Atlanta area recruits having a bevy of great options.
It is unclear whether Tech will stick with a Johnson-like system, or if they’re ready to go in a new direction. Either way, there should be plenty of interesting names for the job.
Nine potential candidates for the Georgia Tech football job:
Here are some of the names that you’ll probably be hearing over the next few weeks.
Ken Niumatalolo – Navy Head Coach
The first coach that you think of when the triple option comes up is probably Johnson. The second: his former assistant head coach and successor at Navy, Niumatalolo.
The 53-year old former Hawaii quarterback has Navy rolling along, to the point where they’ve jumped up and upset Notre Dame a few times, despite a huge talent gap. Last year, he had a dalliance with the Arizona opening, and after a few down seasons in Annapolis, and back-to-back losses to Army, he may want to see what else is out there.
Ken Whisenhunt – Los Angeles Chargers Offensive Coordinator
Whisenhunt wasn’t the first name that jumped to mind, but he is a Georgia Tech alumnus, and ESPN‘s Adam Rittenberg reports that he could be involved here:
Los Angeles Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, who played at Georgia Tech, is a top candidate to replace Johnson, I’m told. Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott also could be in the mix.
He’s coached a variety of offensive styles, and is currently leading a very impressive offense in L.A., helmed by Philip Rivers. Whisenhunt hasn’t coached in college since a brief stint as a Vanderbilt assistant in the mid-1990s, though.
Tony Elliott – Clemson Co-Offensive Coordinator
The other name identified by Rittenberg would be a more standard hire. Elliott took over for Chad Morris, now the head coach at Arkansas, at Clemson, and has helped lead some of the most dynamic offenses in college football.
Clemson is Georgia Tech’s permanent ACC crossover opponent, and it wouldn’t be shocking for the Tech brass to want to make a move that would imitate how Clemson has reached success. That hasn’t always worked out for the SEC schools that have done that with Nick Saban, but it has spectacularly for GT’s main rival, Georgia, which made it to the national championship under former Saban defensive coordinator Kirby Smart last season.
Geoff Collins – Temple Head Coach
Collins took over the Temple job from Matt Rhule, after defensive coordinator stints at Mississippi State and Florida, and has continued the run of successful coaching tenure in Philadelphia.
Through two seasons, he is 15-10, with an 8-4 record this season and a 7-1 mark in a tough AAC. The Owls’ sole league loss was by 12 at undefeated UCF.
Collins, a Georgia native, has a ton of coaching experience all over. He has multiple stints at lower-level jobs at Georgia Tech, as well as stops at Alabama, FIU, UCF, Fordham, and his alma mater Western Carolina. He is also known as an aggressive, fiery recruiter, which could play well in this job.
Mike Leach – Washington State Head Coach
Last season, Leach was a candidate for the Tennessee job. After losing to Washington once again in the Apple Cup, and missing out on the Pac-12 Championship Game, it does seem like he may be brushing up against the ceiling in Pullman, where he turned around one of the Power Five’s most moribund programs.
Leach is a bristly personality and his occasional foot-in-mouth moments may have been easier for folks on the Palouse to tolerate, than they would be directly in the heart of college football. However, Johnson wasn’t the easiest guy for people to get along with either. This move to the air raid would be about as drastic a system change as it gets, but man, it would be fun to see.
Willie Fritz – Tulane Head Coach
Another progenitor of the option, Fritz built his resume at Georgia Southern another nearby former Johnson stop. He has moved on to Tulane, a tough job that he has improved each year. At 58, he could look to continue to quickly climb the ranks, and this would be a solid plug-and-play opportunity for him to enter the Power Five, though it is entirely predicated on Tech wanting to stick with the option, and he may be behind a few other option coaches on the list.
Neal Brown – Troy Head Coach
It feels like he should have been scooped up already, but Neal Brown continues to win at a high level with the Troy Trojans.
With an upcoming bowl game, the former Texas Tech and Kentucky offensive coordinator will be coaching for his third straight 10-win season. Last year, the Trojans beat LSU in Death Valley. This season, they knocked off Nebraska in Lincoln.
At 38, he is primed for a big opportunity, and this could be a fun fit.
Jeff Monken – Army Head Coach
It is hard to find a better coaching job over the last few years than Jeff Monken at Army. After a crazy losing streak, the Black Knights have knocked off Navy twice in a row, and will be sizable favorites in that epic rivalry game next weekend, at 9-2. Last year, Army won 10 games, including the Armed Forces Bowl, following an 8-5 2016 season with a Heart of Dallas Bowl win.
Monken has followed in a similar path to some of the other option coaches, including Johnson. He was a Niumatalolo assistant at Navy, and led Georgia Southern to a 38-16 record and three FCS Playoff Semifinal appearances in four years from 2010-2013.
Mike Norvell – Memphis Head Coach
Justin Fuente, now at Virginia Tech, turned Memphis into a viable program in a solid AAC. Norvell, the former offensive coordinator at Arizona State, has kept them there.
He is 26-12 in two years, and his Tigers will face UCF for the conference title on Saturday. Last season, the Tigers finished ranked in the Top 25.
Norvell has come up for a few Power Five jobs in the past, but hasn’t really gained a ton of traction. He should start to get serious looks soon though.