False Start

There’s a blog I like to read called Coachspeak. It hasn’t been around long– only a few weeks, actually– but I find myself checking it every day. I’m not particularly drawn to the subject matter, as everything there seems to revolve around Texas A&M. Instead, I just find his approach to be entertaining. This is his “About” page:

I am a former sports writer. I’ve worked for several major newspapers mainly in the South and Southwest. I quit that job after getting disgusted about the emphasis placed on speed over accuracy.

This is my blog to sort out the facts from the rumors regarding the college football world. I will only write about the information I get from sources whose credibility I have relied on for years.

It doesn’t mean I’ll be right every time. But I’ll come closer than most of what you’re reading in today’s newspapers.

Speed valued more than accuracy? Say it ain’t so! Some of the comments on there are kind of funny, chock full of A&M fans with their own “sources” who talk about Steve Spurrier’s move to College Station as a done deal. But the author deflects all that, and had them on the trail of Mike Sherman from the beginning. Along those same lines, while Dennis Dodd wrote of imminent announcements and the pressing concerns of both Navy and SMU officials, Kate Hairopoulos of the Dallas Morning News applied a higher standard to her work and discovered that:

Navy spokesman Scott Strasemeier said no schools have asked permission to speak with Johnson.

It appears that we have stumbled head-first into just the kind of situation that the Coachspeak author described. Not that we’re out of the woods or anything, but what used to be called news has devolved into nothing more than dressed-up rumors. Navy fans have known for a while that no Navy football news is really news unless it comes from the notebooks of Bill Wagner, Chris Swezey, or any of the other writers that have reported for the Capital, Post, Sun, Times, or Examiner over the years. Yet for some reason, when another Paul Johnson rumor hits the misinformation superhighway, we have a collective seizure. Well, maybe some of you don’t, but I don’t think I’m alone. One would think that we would learn when someone’s crying wolf, but we never really do, even with a job like SMU that doesn’t seem to make any sense on the surface. (I can make a case for SMU, but I’ll save that for later.)

Can you blame us for panicking, though? We all know how much Paul Johnson means to the school. Yes, the school, not just the football team. Winning games is good for USNA. It brings the Navy family together. I’ve never seen 20,000 Navy grads and their families come to Annapolis for any academic or military event, but they’ll travel to all corners of the country to go to a bowl game. Winning gets USNA on TV, which helps the school send its message. Bowl games, the CSTV contract… both are thanks to Paul Johnson. And don’t underestimate what that exposure can do. Boise State saw a 135% increase in online admissions inquiries following their Fiesta Bowl win; their graduate school saw even more. Appalachian State had a 20% increase in applications after its second consecutive I-AA national championship. After their run to the Final Four, George Mason found itself to be a popular stop for high school students and their parents making decisions on which school to attend. Combine the Notre Dame win with a nail-biting overtime victory against Pittsburgh on ESPN, sprinkle in 5 consecutive bowl games, and top it off with every home game being shown on CSTV, and the Naval Academy sends a powerful message of its own. Appalachian State chancellor Kenneth Peacock said it best:

“Athletics is the front porch of your institution,” Peacock said. “Well, people have liked the front porch. They’ve stopped and looked.”

More exposure leads to more applications. More applications create a greater pool of candidates to choose from. Having a larger pool to choose from means that USNA can have even higher admissions standards. Higher standards lead to better Navy and Marine Corps officers. Better officers make the Navy and Marine Corps– indeed, the country– stronger.

Paul Johnson isn’t just a great football coach. He’s great for America.

Therefore, the only logical conclusion that one can make about athletic directors trying to hire Paul Johnson away is that they hate America. And I seriously doubt that Paul Johnson would want to coach at a place where they hate America. Obviously the reports that you hear about Paul Johnson being a candidate at other schools are all lies. LIES. So take a deep breath. We’re going to be OK.

It’s a good thing too, because winning at Navy isn’t something that just any coach can do. Good coaches have come to Annapolis and failed. Elliot Uzelac had 5 winning seasons in 7 years at Western Michigan. George Chaump averaged a little more than 8 wins a year at Marshall. No matter what happened at Navy, these guys were established coaches. They quickly learned that being a good coach is unfortunately not the same as being the right coach in Annapolis. Paul Johnson is the right coach.

PJ Is Annoyed

I told you about Stan Brock’s comments regarding Paul Johnson’s offense, and how I think that they provide a little extra motivation this week (not that you need much additional motivation for Army-Navy). Other than running the option, the other hot topic in Army football is scheduling. Both Brock and AD Kevin Anderson have said repeatedly that they need to change their scheduling to mirror Navy’s, to the point where it’s starting to sound like they think the schedule is the only reason why Navy’s been any better than Army over the last 5 years. Apparently, PJ is sick of hearing about it:

Johnson sounds off on scheduling

Army’s football scheduling is a hot topic these days.

Army athletic director Kevin Anderson has said he would like to model Army’s schedule after Navy’s.

Here’s Navy coach Paul Johnson’s take on scheduling:

“I don’t know what’s the difference in our schedules is now,” Johnson said. “Can somebody point it out to me? What’s the difference? We played Rutgers, Pitt, Wake Forest,
Notre Dame and Duke. Which five BCS schools did they play?

I replied “Boston College, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, and Rutgers…

Johnson says, “And?”

“They played four. We played five. They played teams in the MAC. We played teams in the MAC. They played Air Force. We played Air Force.
They played Rhode Island. We played Delaware. So what’s the difference?

The difference maybe isn’t in the schedule but in the systems and coaching.

You got that right.

In other news, don’t miss Bill Wagner’s update on Kaipo’s health on his blog. Also, while the Poinsettia Bowl is locked up this year, Navy still doesn’t have a deal in place for a bowl game next year. There are a few things in the works, though, as Christian Swezey tells us that the proposed D.C. bowl game is still a possibility. It could use a better name, though.

The Pink Elephant

It’s on the back of everyone’s mind.

It has been generations since Navy football has been the recipient of this much national attention. A week after the Mids ended their 43-game losing streak to Notre Dame, the stories are still pouring in. We hear Roger Staubach’s take, Phil McConkey’s take, and reactions from random Navy fans. Feinstein believes in miracles, Ram Vela is E.J. Henderson’s inspiration, and bloggers are reveling in Notre Dame’s 1-8 record. It’s fun to be the talk of the college football world… mostly. Not all of the attention is welcome.

We’ve heard one or two people a year ask why Paul Johnson doesn’t get more mention when the annual coaching carousel begins. We’ve heard his name tossed around here and there, but never very seriously. Ole Miss was rumored to have a little bit of interest a couple of years ago, and Johnson was also said to have turned down East Carolina. Last year, several newspaper reports claimed that Johnson was on the short list at North Carolina, NC State, and Alabama. As it turns out, none of those schools were as interested as they were alleged to be. But now that Navy has been put in the national spotlight, more and more people have started asking the question: when will some BCS school take notice and hire Paul Johnson away from Navy?

Half of the traffic on this blog consists of Nebraska, Georgia Tech, and Clemson fans who, apparently lacking any original thought of their own, link my posts on their blogs and message boards to use as propaganda in their campaigns to convince fellow fans that Paul Johnson is their man. Those of you who have been reading The Birddog from the beginning might have noticed that my “Five Myths of Paul Johnson’s Offense” post has disappeared, along with the video that I made to honor PJ on his 100th win. Those were the top choices for visiting scrounges to pilfer. After the Notre Dame win, though, my blog isn’t the only source for content anymore. Media voices around the country are seemingly counting down the days before Paul Johnson gets scooped up by some State U.

It’s sort of funny how people think that Paul Johnson is all of a sudden on the map because he led Navy to a win over Notre Dame. Nothing has really changed. Athletic directors have always known who Paul Johnson was. They still have the same reason for not hiring him; namely, his offense. Being an “option” team carries a stigma that a lot of ADs apparently just don’t want to deal with. I’m not sure why, exactly. It might be because some people think it’s boring and would drive fans away. Some look at the lack of option offenses in college football today and figure that it just doesn’t work anymore. And if you do run the option, but it doesn’t end up working and you have to find yet another coach, you’ll end up screwing that guy because he’ll be stuck trying to implement something new on a team full of option players.

Despite the perceived risks in hiring him, I really thought that Coach Johnson was history after last year. I was certain that UNC or NC State would have gone after the North Carolina native. Neither did, though, and Johnson returned for his 6th year in Annapolis. Looking forward, there are a few other schools that might consider him. The popular names to talk about are Nebraska, Clemson, and Georgia Tech. Nebraska is ridiculous, in my opinion. The only reason he gets any mention there is because of the whole “option” thing, even though Paul Johnson’s offense looks like nothing that Nebraska ever ran. If he ran any other offense, nobody would make the connection. Tommy Bowden may have earned a reprieve at Clemson with their play the last couple of weeks, and who knows what’s going on with Georgia Tech. And now people are starting to talk about SMU? It’s hard to predict who the next competitor for PJ’s services will be.

When Paul Johnson was initially approached by Chet Gladchuck about the possibility of taking the Navy job, he wasn’t interested. It wasn’t until he heard people saying that he couldn’t win there that he began to come around to the idea. There was a long list of things that people said couldn’t be done at Navy, but one by one, Johnson accomplished them all. Winning seasons? Bowl games? Commander-In-Chief’s Trophies? All done. And now, Johnson has accomplished the holy grail of Navy football impossibilities: beating Notre Dame. Media speculation has centered around how the Notre Dame win might have affected Johnson’s marketability. I don’t think it’s much different than it was before the game. What I wonder about is if the win has made Johnson himself feel more comfortable about moving on, that he’d be able to leave without feeling like he had unfinished business. Does Paul Johnson feel he has more to accomplish at Navy? Unfortunately, I can’t answer that question.

There are several factors that make Navy an appealing job for Coach Johnson. He has plenty of reasons to stay. I can’t help thinking, though, that now he has one less.

Ka Mo’olelo O Ke Kūlele Hawai’i

 The Legend of the Hawaii Offense

 Jeff Snyder, Darrick Branch, and Garrett Gabriel

Paul Johnson was hired by Georgia Southern head coach Erk Russell as a defensive assistant in 1983. In 1985, Russell promoted him to offensive coordinator. The Eagles won their first I-AA national championship that year, and repeated as champions in 1986. The success that Georgia Southern was having with Johnson’s spread option caught the eye of new Hawaii head coach Bob Wagner, and he hired Johnson to install that offense with the Rainbows. Johnson remained at Hawaii until he joined Charlie Weatherbie’s staff at Navy in 1995.

While Johnson’s offense at Hawaii was very successful, it has become one of the ultimate college football fish stories. Depending on what Navy fan you ask, Paul Johnson spent his time in Hawaii doing everything from passing for 4000 yards per year, to healing the sick and singlehandedly ending the Cold War. Fans from other schools trying to rally support to hire Johnson away from Navy talk about his Hawaii offense in order to sway those who don’t like the option. “He’ll change once he gets here. He threw the ball at Hawaii!” At Navy, the Hawaii offense has become a messianic prophecy. One day, they say, Paul Johnson will open up the playbook. Like the Jedi, he is simply waiting for the Chosen One; the quarterback who will bring balance to the offense. “Once the Hawaii Offense is unleashed, Navy will be unstoppable!”

Johnson himself has fanned the flames a little bit, talking about how his offense is set up to pass with 4 wide receivers, and mentioning on occasion that he indeed threw the ball some at Hawaii. It was because he had to. When Dick Tomey left Hawaii to take over the Arizona job in 1987, he left behind a team that wasn’t really suited to running the spread option, particularly at quarterback. So Johnson tailored his offense to allow his quarterbacks to throw more. This adjustment reached its zenith in 1990, when Garrett Gabriel threw for 2,752 yards and 25 touchdowns. Gabriel threw for 359 yards against BYU that year, and Hawaii also rushed for 308 yards that day. Outside of the BYU game, Gabriel averaged about 217 passing yards per game in 1990. That isn’t the overwhelming number that some people think it is, but it’s obviously more than what Navy throws for now.

Johnson did what he had to do to make his offense successful with what he inherited. At the time, that meant more passing. When recuiting his own players to meet his vision of his offense, though, Johnson brought in quarterbacks like Ivin Jasper and Michael Carter– guys who could run. No matter how much he passed before (and it really wasn’t that much), the bread and butter of this offense is and was the triple option. And while everyone’s imagination is captured by the year that Gabriel threw for all those yards, Hawaii’s best season actually came two years later. In 1992, with Michael Carter at the helm, Hawaii won the first conference championship in team history, going 11-2 and beating Illinois in the Holiday Bowl. That team was 2nd in the nation in rushing, averaging 293.3 yards per game. They threw for 1,316 yards.
The 1992 THRIFTY CAR RENTAL Holiday Bowl

Now, compare that Hawaii team– Johnson’s best– to what Navy is doing now. Navy is averaging 345 rushing yards per game, good for #1 in the nation. Halfway through the season, Navy has thrown for 658 yards… Meaning that they are on pace to throw for 1,316 yards by the end of the year. Sound familiar?

Let it roll around in your heads for a second, Navy fans. You may not have realized it, but Navy’s offense so far is actually outperforming the best team that Paul Johnson had at Hawaii. You can stop with your prayers of hope and start with your prayers of thanks.

The Hawaii Offense is at hand.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that Paul Johnson was dipping into the dustier parts of his playbook this year, at least in throwing the ball. While the first three games of the season were fairly consistent with what we’ve seen out of the Navy passing game for a while now, things began to open up a bit against Duke. Navy threw for 236 yards against the Blue Devils, and it wasn’t as if those yards were gained on a last-second comeback attempt, either. Navy has averaged 160 yards through the air in its last three games; probably not enough to make anyone forget about Colt Brennan, but still nearly triple what Navy threw for a year ago.

The passing game is grabbing everyone’s attention lately, but Navy’s rushing game is more potent than ever. They haven’t changed anything schematically; there isn’t much to change, really. They’re doing what they’ve always done, just better. Navy has topped 300 yards on the ground in 5 of its first 6 games, including a 521-yard performance against Ball State. As a team, Navy averages a remarkable 5.6 yards per carry and 35 points per game. Seven different players have at least 100 rushing yards this season.

There are two reasons why the offense has been so effective: the quarterback and the offensive line.

Kaipo-Noa Hiwahiwa Akahi Kaheaku-EnhadaMaybe it’s fate that Paul Johnson’s most effective Navy offense is being led by Navy’s own kama’aina at quarterback. How else could one explain how Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada would come under the tutelage of the MVP of that ’92 Holiday Bowl? The aforementioned Michael Carter was offensive coordinator of Kaipo’s Kapolei High school for two years. Carter employed an offense similar to the one he played under at Hawaii, and it was there that Kaipo began to learn his craft as a quarterback and wide receiver in this offense. Once Kaipo came to Navy to play for Carter’s old coach, it was as if everything came full circle.

It’s hard to imagine anyone coming to Navy with the offensive pedigree that Kaipo has. Not only did he play in this offense in high school, but a year spent at the Naval Academy Prep School allowed him to fine-tune his game even further. By the time Kaipo stepped in for an injured Brian Hampton halfway through his sophomore year, his knowledge and comfort level in the offense was far greater than a typical sophomore. The key to mastering Paul Johnson’s spread option is repetition, and Kaipo had been running similar plays for years. Now Kaipo is a junior, and we’re starting to see the fruits of his experience.

Young quarterbacks in the spread tend to focus on very specific reads. They zero in on their keys and react to what those keys do. Those are the basics. But over time and repetition, the quarterback gains a better understanding of the big picture. He is able to see beyond his keys to understand how to exploit the weaknesses in certain defensive alignments. For example, a quarterback might read pitch when he gets to his pitch key, but after seeing a weakness in the defensive alignment he decides to fake the pitch and cut upfield instead. Kaipo is seeing the big picture, and his performance has improved because of it. Kaipo has as many 100-yard games halfway through this year (four) as any other Navy quarterback has had for an entire season under Johnson.

Perhaps the biggest surprise this year has been Kaipo’s passing. Kaipo reportedly worked hard on throwing the ball over the summer, and he’s made notable improvements in both his arm strength and his footwork. But the most significant improvement in the Navy passing game has not been at quarterback, but with the offensive line. Last year, Navy had a sack/pass attempt ratio of .19, the worst in the country (by a wide margin). This year, that ratio has been cut almost in half, to .10. Kaipo is having more success throwing the ball because Navy’s offensive line is giving him the time to do it. A byproduct of this is that more receivers are getting involved in the passing game too. Nine different Navy players caught a pass against Duke. Five players caught a pass against Pitt. Navy’s passing game is more than just the A-pop this year, and that’s a direct result of the offensive line’s efforts.

So sleep well, Navy fans. The offense you were dreaming of is here.

Bill Wagner Has a Blog

The chances of anyone reading my nonsense anymore just got crushed like an Air Force safety trying to tackle Kyle Eckel. Bill Wagner has started a Navy sports blog. Navy fans now have a blog by someone who actually knows what he’s talking about. Those of you who aren’t interested in the opinions of someone who actually attends practices and talks to players and coaches, feel free to stick around here!

In other news, Ron Snyder has been busy lately. Don’t miss his interview with Paul Johnson as well as his piece on Antron Harper. Antron seems to be the writers’ favorite this year, probably due to a combination of having an interesting background and being friggin’ awesome. His isn’t the only profile out today, though; Christian Swezey wrote a great piece on Clint Sovie.

Speaking of Wagner, he talked with Wayne Hardin about his time coaching Navy and Temple, plus his efforts to sell tickets to Friday’s game. I’m sure there are a lot of people who laugh at Hardin’s goal of selling out Lincoln Financial Field because there’s no way that it’s going to happen. Those people are missing the point. The important thing here is that Temple is making the effort. Aiming high is something that they haven’t done before, at least for football. It’s a good sign for a downtrodden program. I still hope we crush them, though.

Some more Temple talk includes a look at their MAC membership and head coach Al Golden.

Counting Our Blessings

Our old friend Kent Baker has written an excellent piece on Paul Johnson.

I’ve been a Navy fan my entire life. My father is class of ’74, and a good chunk of my childhood was spent making the trip from Virginia Beach or Arlington (wherever we were living at the time) to Annapolis for games. I saw a lot of bad football. Eventually, I guess all that bad football wore my father down. His interest in the game sort of slipped away, except for the Army-Navy game. That changed once Paul Johnson was hired. Now he calls every week to get a breakdown of how we match up with every opponent. He goes to games again. He won’t stop talking about how great of a fit Paul Johnson is to the Naval Academy.

Nor should he.

We are so lucky to have Paul Johnson as our head football coach. Baker’s article is a great reminder of that.

May PJ never be taken for granted.

Loose Change

Lots of chatter popping up in the last couple of days:

  • In the “ignorance is bliss” category, we have PJ’s Monday presser. Talk about a list of things you wish you didn’t know… Kaipo’s in a neck brace, none of the punters are consistent, the secondary’s all hurt, and Greg Thrasher is in PJ’s doghouse. Yeesh. I guess there’s a silver lining in that Rashawn King is recovering well from his shoulder injury, but anyone who didn’t like PJ’s media day optimism can feel better knowing that it’s back to business as usual.
  • Navy will once again be an NCAA lacrosse tournament quarterfinal host this year. The ability to host events like these were a big reason why Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium made the switch to FieldTurf, so it’s nice to see that move pay off. It’ll be nicer if it’s a Navy home game this year.
  • The unending football conference affiliation talk resumed as Chet talked to Ron Snyder about the difficulties of finding bowl games as an independent. Conference membership means a lot more than bowl game access, though. I still don’t think that this will happen anytime soon, if at all.
  • Navy’s been sold out of Army-Navy tickets for a while. Now Army is too. If you want tickets, looks like you’ll be headed to Stubhub or eBay.
  • Scout.com’s Temple site previews Navy (subscription required). For those without a subscription, it’s very complimentary, saying that Navy “might be the second-toughest team on the schedule.” In case you’re wondering, Temple plays Penn State this year.
  • Some Air Force Academy grad wants to play pro baseball. I don’t really care that much as long as this doesn’t become a habit; the Air Force will do what it thinks is best for itself. But will people PLEASE stop comparing every scrub that wants to turn pro to David Robinson? By the time Robinson played his first game in San Antonio, he had already been an Olympic medalist, a Naismith Award winner, a Wooden Award winner, on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and led Navy to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament. That is a far, far cry from being one of thousands of players struggling to find a place in minor league baseball. Robinson is one of the best players in the history of his sport. Karl Bolt is not. It makes a difference when the Navy or Air Force is considering an athlete’s fate.
  • Bill Wagner offers a look at college recruiting, including Billy Lange’s approach.
  • ESPN.com talks Patriot League basketball as part of their “Shoot Around” series.