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Johnson gets it done as coach at Navy

By Doug Gorman

When Paul Johnson was named the head coach at the United States Naval Academy my first reaction was get used to losing.

I couldn't name one player on the Navy football team. I didn't know the name of the man he was replacing, and I couldn't tell you much about the team's recent history.

I did know former Navy quarterback Roger Staubach was the Heisman Trophy winner back in the 1960s before fulfilling his service committment and eventually moving on to a stellar NFL career in his late 20s.

I also knew the Navy football program was a mess. The days of the service academies being a force in college football were long over. The game had changed too much. Navy football players were preparing for careers as officers in the Navy or Marines, not a career in the NFL.

In my mind, Johnson had it made. As the head coach at Georgia Southern, Johnson turned the Eagles into the most feared Division I-AA program in the country. While patrolling the sidelines in Statesboro, Johnson posted a 62-10 record, won two straight Division I-AA national titles and led the Eagles to five straight Southern Conference titles. He was also named the Division I-AA National Coach of the Year four straight years.

I knew Johnson was a hot commodity. I even had visions of the Georgia Southern coach moving himself and his staff to Atlanta when George O'Leary left Georgia Tech for Notre Dame.

But coaching at Navy? Come on.

Some Division I-AA jobs are better than major college jobs, and Georgia Southern was one of them.

Granted, the Navy job was more lucrative, but in my narrow mindedness, I thought he was better off staying at Georgia Southern until a bigger school called with another job offer.

Boy, did I look foolish. Johnson has shown you can win and win big with "true student athletes."

In just his two years at Navy, Johnson has turned the Midshipmen back into winners. The squad has gone to two straight bowls, beating New Mexico in the Emerald Bowl last month. In the two years before Johnson signed on as head coach at Navy, the squad had posted a 1-20 record. It was the football teams worst two-year record in the 123-year history of the program.

Once Johnson arrived on campus, things turned around overnight. Johnson's Navy teams have gone 17-7. That's the best two-year span in nearly 100 years of Navy football.

When the final AP Top-25 poll came out, Navy was ranked No. 24. They finished ahead of SEC member Florida, which finished 25th.

I know skeptics are going to say this can't last. It's just a fluke. Navy plays a weak schedule and they aren't even in the BCS.

I say don't bet this can't last.

I only saw Navy play a couple of times on television this year, but this was an exciting football team. I was impressed by Kyle Eckel, who rushed for 1,151 yards and quarterback Aaron Polance's 980 yards rushing and 1,131 yards passing.

This talented offensive tandem and their teammates have helped dispel the myth that college football teams can win at places with rigid academic standards.

For these young men, being part of the Navy football team has to serve as diversion.

In the back of their minds, they must know the future is uncertain. They know many of their former classmates are already serving in dangerous places around the world. They have to know they could soon be joining them.

Johnson doesn't coach football heroes. He coaches courageous young men. Young men who have decided to serve and protect their country in these uncertain times.

That's special, and certainly a lot more important than the outcome of a college football game on a cool and crisp fall Saturday afternoon.

Doug Gorman is sports editor of the Daily. His column runs on Fridays. He can be e-mailed at dgorman@news-daily.com