College Football

What could have been?

N.C. State, UNC passed on hiring Tech's Johnson

Staff WriterJanuary 7, 2010 

Here are two reasons N.C. State and North Carolina football fans should have stayed up to watch the Orange Bowl on Tuesday night:

Listen to Kool & the Gang murder "Celebration" for the jazillionth time.

Wonder, "What if ... ?"

Both are exercises in torture, but the rise of Paul Johnson's coaching star at Georgia Tech - Tuesday's 24-14 loss to Iowa notwithstanding - has to make armchair ADs in the Triangle ponder what could have been.

After Chuck Amato and John Bunting were purged from the area at the end of the 2006 season, Johnson emerged as the rare candidate for both N.C. State and UNC.

If not for a Chuck Neinas end-around to find Tom O'Brien, at another ACC school, Johnson could be State's coach right now. If Butch Davis had decided to wait for a bigger job, Johnson could be UNC's coach right now.

Both schools passed on Johnson, a North Carolina native, and made seemingly slam-dunk hires that were applauded then. Three seasons into their tenures, Davis and O'Brien still look like smart decisions for UNC and N.C. State. But would they be better off with Johnson?

If you compare the on-field results, it's not even close. Johnson, who left Navy after the 2007 season after winning 45 games in six seasons at what was one of the worst Division I programs, is 20-7 overall and 12-4 in the ACC in his first two seasons, with a division and ACC title.

Davis went 12-13 in his first two seasons at UNC, and O'Brien went 11-14 at State. Both were 7-9 in the ACC without so much as a second-place division finish.

Johnson has won four more games in two seasons than O'Brien (16) has in three and has the same number as Davis (20) has in three.

True, Johnson has had better luck avoiding injuries, and he did inherit a winning program at Georgia Tech from likable but limited Chan Gailey, but it's not as if he walked into Pete Carroll's office at USC or Urban Meyer's at Florida.

Of course, the reason neither Triangle school jumped at Johnson, in the way UNC did at Davis, is because of his option offense. It's different, it's practically antiquated and, depending on the recruiting target, it's unattractive. There's also the matter of it not working when opponents are given time to prepare for it.

Johnson is 0-4 against teams coming off an open date, including two bowl losses when the opponent had a month to get ready.

But in the other 23 games, Johnson has 20 wins and an ACC title, which is something neither State nor UNC has won in 30 years.

The inherent bowl dilemma suggests there's a ceiling to Johnson's star, but if that means only winning the ACC, who among the red or light blue would complain?

It's about the kids, part 1

The illogical and Pavlovian response by any college football bowl advocate when a playoff system is suggested is to claim the bowls are "all about the kids."

The experience, the per diem, the chance to go out a winner, it's all for the good of the student-athlete, we're told.

Certainly there's a kernel of truth buried in that party line; to say otherwise would ignore the joy on the winning sidelines of the first 32 bowl games.

But what exactly about East Carolina's Liberty Bowl experience was about the kids?

The 4:30 p.m. local start time (at ESPN's whim) that robbed the game of any daylight and placed it in the teeth of subfreezing conditions in Memphis? The medieval Liberty Bowl facility, which makes Wallace Wade Stadium look like Jerry Jones' new uberdome?

Ironically enough, Eddie Money sang "Two Tickets to Paradise" during the halftime show. Clearly, he wasn't referring to Memphis in January.

It's about the kids, part 2

The field conditions for Penn State's Citrus Bowl win over LSU were deplorable.

Large chunks of the resodded grass flew up with every step, rendering LSU's speed advantage useless and Penn State's offensive line helpless. The marshy field had everything but navigational buoys.

Normally, you chalk a lousy field up to lousy weather, and there was plenty of that, but it also didn't help matters that in the infinite wisdom of the Florida Citrus Sports conglomerate, it decided to play two bowl games in four days on the same field.

Why? Surely it was for the kids, right?

Well, there's the minor matter of the $12.4 million FCSports grossed in 2007 (and $10.7 million in expenses), according to federal tax reports.

Where do you think that extra $1.7 million went? Surely it was for the kids, right?

jp.giglio@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8938

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