Johnson downplays rivalry with VanGorder

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Of the many interesting subplots that we’ll be tracking this week heading into Notre Dame’s showdown with Georgia Tech, the rivalry between Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson and second-year Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder may be among the juiciest.

Johnson rose to prominence at Georgia Southern, where his triple-option offense helped win back-to-back FCS championships before he left for Navy in 2001. VanGorder, hired as head coach of the Eagles in 2005, got rid of the option, favoring a pro-style attack.

Among those reportedly unhappy about that change? Johnson.

Last November, USA Today’s Dan Wolken dug up the decade-old beef when writing a profile on Georgia Tech’s head coach in the days before the ACC Championship game. And while the intent of the story was to provide a look at the hard-charging ways of Johnson, who finally had the Yellow Jackets operating at maximum efficiency, it also revealed just another interesting storyline to follow heading into Saturday’s showdown.

From Wolken’s piece:

Paul Johnson had already been at Navy for four years when he placed a call to Roger Inman, his old do-everything man from Georgia Southern. They had known each other since their early 20s when Johnson was starting his long climb up the coaching ladder and Inman was doing whatever the program needed from driving buses to selling tickets, from looking after the equipment to even patching up injured players.

So when Johnson called in 2006 — by then, more successful and wealthier than ever — ranting and raving about how Georgia Southern’s first-year coach Brian VanGorder was trying to undo the triple option offense that had lifted the program to prominence, Inman knew it had wounded Johnson’s football soul.

“VanGorder had made some comments that he didn’t think too highly of the offense, and Paul called me up and said, ‘I need to talk to (athletics director) Sam (Baker) and get Georgia Southern on the schedule,'” Inman said. “I said, ‘Why do you want to play us?’ And he said, ‘Because I want to beat the hell out of Brian VanGorder.’ “

When asked about the grudge today, Johnson did his best to downplay any animosity, trying to keep the focus on the big picture.

“I don’t know where everybody got that,” Johnson said, according to ESPN’s David Hale. “I’ve never coached against the guy. I don’t know that we’ve ever had a conversation.”

(Uh, the USA Today, Paul. And that sounds like a classic non-denial, denial, right?)

Johnson’s history with Notre Dame is well chronicled, with the former Navy coach breaking the Midshipmen’s 43-game NCAA record-long losing streak in 2007 in a wild triple-overtime 46-44 victory. And after some very close calls against the Irish, back then Johnson did his best to downplay his team’s achievements in South Bend that weekend in the moments after the game.

“I’m just so happy for our players, especially our seniors because, you know, it is a big win for our program,” Johnson said back then. “It is a big win for the Academy, and I’m happy that I don’t have to answer anything else about a streak every time we play.”

For now, we’ll turn our attention away from the Georgia Southern connection. But come Saturday afternoon, you can’t help but think that two NBC cameras will be focused on Johnson and VanGorder, especially with Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator tasked with finding a better answer to the triple-option than the Irish had last season against Navy, VanGorder’s first attempt to stop it since officially removing it from the playbook as a head coach in 2005.