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What's in a name? For two Paul Johnsons, it's plenty

Joe Avento • Dec 1, 2018 at 8:03 PM

Ask Paul Johnson about Paul Johnson, and you’ll get an earful.

After all, the two share more than a name.

Paul Johnson, the evening news anchor for WCYB and WEMT, and Paul Johnson, the football coach, grew up together in Avery County, North Carolina. They played on the same teams in high school and spent hours going at it against each other in pickup basketball games.

Johnson the coach recently announced his retirement. He spent the past 11 years at Georgia Tech and has 189 wins in 22 seasons as a head coach entering his final game, Tech’s bowl game that has yet to be announced.

Along the way, he won two national championships at Georgia Southern and was chosen coach of the year — nationally and conference-wise — so many times that they’ll likely name an award after him someday.

When TV’s Paul Johnson heard the news of his high school pal’s retirement, it brought back a lot of memories. The two were born eight days apart in August of 1957. Both have fathers named Paul. They each have a daughter born in the same year.

“It’s kind of amazing,” Johnson the broadcaster said. “The one thing that irritates both of us is that people will ask if we’re related. It’s not like we’re brothers, like we have the world’s dumbest parents and they named us both Paul. I probably get that question once or twice a year.”

The man known locally as “PJ” says his friend’s coaching career didn’t come as a surprise to those who knew him. He was always a coach on the field, even as a 135-pound nose guard and center for Avery County High School.

“When we played high school football together, he was a student of the game,” Johnson said. “He took a beating, but he was always figuring things out. He’d see the formation and know where the ball was going. He’d say ‘P, it’s coming at you.’ He was almost always right.

“And in his senior year, he recovered three or four fumbles. He always seemed to be around the ball.”

It was during this time that Johnson the coach became interested in the triple-option offense used by their high school coach, the late Elmer Aldridge. Years later, the name Paul Johnson and the words “triple option” became synonymous as he honed the system at Georgia Southern and then went on to success at Navy and Georgia Tech.

“I’ve never understood why he gets criticized so much for running his system,” Johnson said. “No one has really been able to stop it, and if he ever had a team that had a good defense, he might have won it all.”

The two Paul Johnsons have met professionally a few times during their careers, including once in 2001 when No. 1 Georgia Southern came to Johnson City and lost to East Tennessee State.

“He wasn’t happy that day,” Johnson said.

Johnson said his coaching counterpart is a “real smart guy” and that one of his hobbies seeps into his coaching style.

“One thing about Paul that people don’t really know is that he is a really good poker player,” he said. “He goes for it all the time on fourth down and he’ll be deep in his own territory and suddenly throw a long pass. That’s his personality. He’s a riverboat gambler.”

Back in 2013, the town of Newland celebrated its 100th anniversary. The two Paul Johnsons were invited to a ceremony and were honored, one as the “coach of the century” and the other as “broadcaster of the century.” They were joined on the stage by a third figure, former North Carolina State basketball star Tom Burleson, who was being honored as “Olympian of the century.”

“The three of us are up there and Paul speaks first and then I give my little speech,” PJ said. “Then Tommy gets up and said ‘My only regret is that I’m not named Paul Johnson so that everybody up here could have the same name.’

“People started laughing. It was really funny.”

The two Paul Johnsons spent some time working at Grandfather Golf and Country Club, the future coach caddying and the future news man parking cars. Now, the coach has a summer home at Grandfather Mountain, where he is expected to spend some of his newly acquired time off playing golf. He was the MVP of the golf team in high school and continued his love of the game.

However, a retired coach can play only so much golf, and the TV man thinks the coach will be back on the sidelines someday.

“The man was born to coach,” Johnson said. “It’s just my opinion, but I have a feeling we haven’t heard the last of him.”

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