Head football coach Paul Johnson made a swing through Jacksonville to talk to the local alumni association chapter on the wine and cheese circuit. The Birddog was there, along with more than 100 alumni and fans at UNF’s University Center.
The Times-Union was there too, although they didn’t provide any detail on the speech. Hopefully that’s where I can step in. Fullbacks coach Chris Culton made the trip too. If you’ve heard Coach Johnson talk to USNA alumni groups before, you know that he makes basically the same speech each time. It’s nothing most hardcore Navy fans don’t already know, but it’s still good stuff; especially for those who may have forgotten just how far Navy football has come in 5 short years. Some highlights:
– Coach Johnson said he was “astounded” that Navy’s facilities hadn’t improved between the time he was offensive coordinator (1995-1996) and 2002 when he took over as head coach. Facilities had slipped behind both Air Force and Army over that time. That was one of the first things he set about correcting when he came back.
– Player attitudes were another thing that needed correcting. Coach talked about how, in his first year, the team would lose a game but the players didn’t act like they cared. After the game they’d be on their cell phones looking to see where the party was. Accountability and a winning attitude were things that didn’t really exist. One of the things that he did to correct this attitude was ramp up the intensity at practice. The more you invest, PJ says, the harder it is to lay down. Of course, the harder you work, the fewer people there are who’ll want to do it. A side effect of this new philosophy was that a lot of guys “didn’t think football was fun anymore,” as PJ put it, and ended up quitting. That helped to keep the team at a more manageable size (about 150 or so).
– Mentioned that the first goals that he set for the program was to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and to make Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium a tough place to play again.
– Coach Johnson had a 3-pronged strategy for improvement. First was making the players that he inherited better. To do that, PJ brought strength and conditioning coach Mike Brass with him from Georgia Southern. With summer training taking up a lot of the time that other schools would be using for offseason workouts, Coach Johnson wanted to find a way to make more time for players to use for conditioning. The end result is “0” block cruise. Football players have a chance to start their summer professional training as soon as classes end rather than waiting until after Commissioning Week festivities are over.
The second part of the improvement strategy was to recruit better players. The previous staff cast a wide net, bringing in hundreds of players in the hopes that through sheer luck, a few of them will turn out to be legitimate I-A prospects. Rather than do that, PJ and his staff target kids that they know can play.
The third leg of the rebirth of Navy football was to change the schedule. Playing top 25 programs week in and week out doesn’t give us a chance to win. Coach restated the 4-4-4 scheduling philosophy: 4 teams you should be favored against, 4 teams where it should be pretty even, and 4 teams that you need to “play up” to beat.
– Coach Johnson wrapped up the prepared portion of his talk by talking about spring practice and looking ahead to this season. He said that he felt that the team made good progress this spring. He said that all three quarterbacks played very well and that he’d be comfortable with any of them. He also said that the defense made great strides. At the beginning of the spring, the offense pretty much had their way with the defense. The opposite was true at the end. That’s important because, according to PJ, the defense was always ahead of the offense on the best teams he’s coached.
– The offensive line might be the best he’s had at Navy. Definitely the most athletic. The whole team, in fact, is more athletic than ever. There are a lot of young players on defense; 10 new starters. Coach Johnson says that he thinks they can play, but you never know until you play a game.
– After his speech, Coach opened the floor to questions. Lots of good stories in the Q&A. For example, PJ talked about the 2002 Air Force game, when Fisher DeBerry told newspaper reporters after the game that he wanted to “send a message.” PJ clipped that newspaper article, framed it, and kept it on his desk for motivation until the next year.
The most interesting thing that Coach talked about in the Q&A was the need to play a game in Florida for recruiting purposes. He talked about maybe getting games with USF or UCF. If something couldn’t be put together with either of those schools, then PJ said that the answer might be to schedule the Notre Dame game in Florida again. But one way or another, PJ was very clear that we needed a game in Florida.
That was about it. Tom Heilmann once again did a terrific job putting the event together. Football season can’t get here soon enough.