MACON, Ga. — Stationed high above the playing surface, it was from a broadcast booth where Georgia State head coach Bill Curry first witnessed the chess master at work.
No evidence of a play sheet, no sign of notes directing his next move, the crafty competitor looked comfortable, confident and in control. He was different.
“I give credit to my (ESPN) broadcast buddy, Eric Collins,” said Curry, a former college football analyst and former Georgia Tech head coach. “I was his analyst for several games, and we covered a lot of Paul Johnson’s games when he was at Navy. Every time we talked about Paul Johnson, Eric said the same thing, and he said it on air: ‘The rest of the coaches are playing checkers, Paul Johnson is playing chess.’ Eric came up with that. And he’s right.”
Creator of a unique option-style offense, Johnson — the Yellow Jackets’ head coach entering his second year — began drawing praise from commentators while at Navy several seasons ago.
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Curry added that Johnson has a finesse for making key, unexpected in-game adjustments that countered varying looks defenses presented his team.
“If you have a flaw,” Curry said, “Paul’s going to find it, and then he’s going to beat you to death until you correct it. And when you correct it, then he’s got a counter for that, and it’s all in his head. He does not have a play sheet, he doesn’t always have a card in his hand, he doesn’t look at notes. He stands there, and it’s all upstairs.”
The way Johnson views football is very similar to the board game.
“Once the (football) game starts, you have to be able to move and counter-move,” Johnson said last month on the Bill Shanks radio show. “You have to know your system and your opponents’ system enough. Although, that doesn’t always work because, sometimes, physical superiority can get in the way of all that.”
Tuesday morning, Curry and Johnson were in Macon at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame as part of the Pigskin Preview. An annual event, the function is an opportunity for coaches and players to meet with members of the media before their preseason conference meetings next month.
Johnson, who admits having had limited interactions with his Georgia Tech coaching predecessor, believes there is reason Curry’s soon-to-be players at Georgia State should be optimistic about their futures.
“One thing I know about him is that he’s a gifted and motivated speaker, and if there’s one thing I’d have to pick about him that’s it,” Johnson said. “That’s kind of his calling card.”