ATLANTA -- Everything about it still says "old school": The minimal use of shotgun, the lack of passing, even the Russell Athletic logo on the jerseys that seems straight out of the '90s. Talking about Georgia Tech's under-center triple-option style of football requires delving into a lot of fact vs. perception, but in terms of appearances, at least, it has the look of a bygone era.
Naturally, that leaves head coach Paul Johnson to continue fighting those perceptions, to prove that his brand of triple option that has largely been phased out nationally, outside of the military academies, remains viable, not antiquated.
It's a question that grew even louder when starting quarterback Vad Lee abruptly transferred in January after a disappointing 7-6 season.
"The triple-option was never really my thing," Lee said at the time.
While Lee's departure may have been a surprise, it also appears to have served as a necessary reset for Georgia Tech after a frustrating sixth year of the Johnson era that ended in seven wins for the second straight season, capped by a double-OT loss to Georgia and a stagnant bowl loss to Ole Miss. Georgia Tech has a long bowl streak dating back to the 1997 Carquest Bowl -- a pretty good mark of consistency -- but that doesn't mean the atmosphere around the program hasn't begun to feel a bit stale.
But by no means is this a Florida-type situation where the head coach must abandon some of his philosophies to survive. Johnson has been -- mostly successfully -- coaching option football for 30 years, and this spring is all about doubling down on what he knows best.
"Really, this spring we've tried to get back to basic fundamentals," Johnson said last week in his office at Bobby Dodd Stadium. "We're getting back to our roots and what we do. It's been fun, because we've got guys who want to do what we're doing. And so that part of it is good."
Six years ago, when Georgia Tech hired Johnson, it was hiring a very particular style of football that seems so old but in a way was also quite new, or at least unique. By bringing the flexbone triple option to the ACC, Georgia Tech had a certain novelty to it, and by embracing the old it was almost sort of innovative. There was natural interest to see if this style, an offshoot of what Nebraska used to dominate the 1990s, could sustain success in the 21st century long after the Cornhuskers abandoned it. Hiring Johnson from Navy, which under his leadership became as good as a military academy can be in modern football, brought an automatic level of intrigue and entertainment value to the program.
But there's also a point when the shine can wear off, and one can't help but wonder if that's happening now. The feeling of novelty can be lost, and when something unique like this system doesn't meet expectations, it can get old fast.
Weirdly, Johnson's greatest success came in his first two seasons, when he was playing mostly with Chan Gailey's recruits. The Yellow Jackets went 20-7 in those two seasons, winning an ACC title, going to the Orange Bowl and finishing in the top 25 both seasons as Johnson was named ACC coach of the year twice in a row. But in four years since then, they've gone 28-25, without a win over ACC Coastal division rival Miami since 2008 or Virginia Tech since 2009, and haven't finished in the top 25.
The problem is that while something different can seem intriguing at the time, it also serves as an easy scapegoat down on the road. In reality, much of what Georgia Tech does, as Johnson and offensive coordinator Bryan Cook say, isn't all that different from the spread option craze of the 2000s that continues to today. But because there's no semblance of a traditional timing-and-rhythm passing game -- it's run, run, run, then throw it deep -- it's impossible to say that Georgia Tech is in the same boat as everyone else. The Yellow Jackets have ranked last in the ACC in passing each of Johnson's six years, and that's no accident: They haven't ranked above 117th in pass attempts in that span, by design. They make big plays in the pasing game, sure, but they're going to live and die running the football with three backs and a running quarterback.
"Yeah, it's not as sexy as some of the other stuff, but if you look now at the offenses, there's hardly a team that doesn't run some form of option," Johnson said.
But whereas others may diversify the option and use it as a part of what they do, it is unmistakably at the core of what Georgia Tech does, something that is not going to change. In fact, as Georgia Tech gets set to replace Lee, its focus is on making its system work and not looking to do something more complex. It's about having clearly defined roles for players, and getting the best players on the field.
"We've kind of gone back to grassroots a little bit and focused on fundamentals and just being good at what we do and not trying to be too cute or get outside the box too much," Cook said. "I think we've simplified and narrowed our focus a little bit."
With Lee gone, there's an opportunity for sophomore Justin Thomas to take the reigns and give the offense a true option quarterback, after Lee left on a sour note. While recruiting quarterbacks to such a run-heavy offense may be difficult, as Johnson points out Georgia Tech can go after the athlete-types who want to play quarterback but who are in line for position changes at most major schools. Such is the case with Thomas, a four-star recruit who initially was going to go to Alabama to play defensive back but instead wanted to continue playing quarterback for the Yellow Jackets.
"It's a trade off," Johnson said. "Other schools try to use it against you, and really the biggest problem we've had with it is the media trying to play it up and act like it's a problem."
And right there is essentially every issue: Perceived problems becoming reality, because all that really matters is what people hear and what people think. Public perception is everything when it comes to recruiting and fan happiness, two things that have a direct impact on a coach's longevity.
While just because Georgia Tech hardly throws the ball means limited opportunities for receivers -- something opponents will obviously use to negatively recruit against the Yellow Jackets -- in turn Johnson can point to first-round draft pick Demaryius Thomas and second-round pick Stephen Hill. But then again, recruiting coveted prospects hasn't exactly been the norm. According to Rivals.com's team rankings, Georgia Tech has not had a recruiting class finish better than 41st during the Johnson era (Gailey's last class finished 18th).
Johnson, of course, has heard all the complaints and knows them well. He needs to be confident in his system, and he makes it his responsbility to bust down all negative perceptions.
"Here's another misnomer, that once teams see [the option] three or four years, teams they figure it out," Johnson said. "Hell, what is there to figure out? It's like, OK, I've seen the iso play for a hundred years, but it doesn't mean you've figured it out. You still gotta beat a block and make a play. ... How many times in football have people seen a curl out? But they still throw them. Or the off-tackle power play. But people still run 'em. It's not like, 'OK well now that we've seen that we've got that figured out, so you've gotta try something else.'
"It's all about execution. You're trying to be better at running it than they are at stopping it."
It's a simple yet time-tested philosophy of football. An offense doesn't have to be complicated if the players are good and they execute better than the opponent. Despite a recent downturn, it's not as if Georgia Tech's offense hasn't been successful either. According to cfbstats.com, Georgia Tech has ranked in the top five in the ACC in yards per play each of Johnson's six seasons. The Yellow Jackets scored 35 points per game last year, and even with Lee's inconsistency, they ranked 11th nationally with an average of 5.46 yards per rush. Thomas -- if he holds off Middle Tennessee transfer Tim Byerly -- has the ability to give the offense a jolt with his quickness, and as always there's no shortage of running backs ready to be plugged into the system. In what could be another wide-open season in the ACC Coastal, Georgia Tech may be as good of a bet as any for the division title, especially without Florida State on the schedule.
But then the hits keep coming. Georgia Tech held its spring game last Friday night, and more or less no one showed up, in what was quickly read as a negative referendum on the Johnson era. Of course, the photo didn't tell the entire story, becuase the weather was terrible all day, and there were a few more people there than was thought, and really, who wants to judge an entire program based on attendance for a scrimmage in a bad storm? But, hey, the damage has already been done, and when perception spirals out of control, that can be all that matters.
After last year's frustration, it's pretty clear that the 2014 season -- Johnson's seventh at Georgia Tech -- may go a long way toward determing the long-term viability of this system at this level. At its core, the job is not only about winning, but in doing so making sure that perception doesn't trump reality.