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Johnson, Swinney proving critics wrong
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ATLANTA — Paul Johnson had the offense that wasn’t going to work, not against the big boys.

Dabo Swinney was too young and inexperienced.

Look where they are now, both coaching in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.

“You know, most people don’t believe. Most people, they want you to fail. They get excited to see you struggle,” said Swinney, Clemson’s second-year coach. “But I’ve never been afraid to fail. I’ve never been afraid to put myself out there because I believe in myself, and that’s what I’ve learned as a human, is that if I have my eyes on the right things and I believe in myself, I’m going to make it.”

Johnson took over a Georgia Tech program that was middle of the pack in the ACC and needed only two seasons to lead it to the top of its division, all the while sticking to the triple-option offense that had been so successful at Navy and lower-division Georgia Southern.

Never mind the critics who doubted that a throwback scheme could be successful at the major-college level. Johnson seems to thrive off that sort of talk, constantly bringing up even the slightest perceived slight, using it to motivate his players and push himself even more to succeed — sometimes, it seems, for no other reason than to throw it back in the face of his critics.

“We didn’t have it what it took to get over the hump,” linebacker Sedric Griffin said after practice Tuesday evening. “When coach Johnson came in, he instilled a winning attitude. He taught us that we were never out of the game, there’s always a way to win the game.”

Earlier in the day, Johnson was named ACC coach of the year for leading Georgia Tech (10-2) to the Coastal Division title. The No. 12 Yellow Jackets will face Atlantic Division champ Clemson (8-4) in Saturday’s league championship game at Tampa, Fla., with the winner likely headed to the Orange Bowl.

Not surprisingly, Johnson brought up his offense after being told of his award.

“It helps wash away all the negatives that people try to sell about the different system and those kind of things,” he said.

Clearly, Johnson coaches with a chip on his shoulder. He’s even conceded that he’s a little too sensitive to criticism, but says that comes from people telling him throughout his career that an offense resembling the 1970s wishbone might work just fine in Division I-AA, or even at a talent-challenged school such as Navy, but it would never succeed in a BCS conference.

So much for that theory. The Yellow Jackets are the ACC’s most prolific offense, averaging 35 points and 441 yards per game.

They do most of their damage on the ground, putting up a 305-yard average that’s nearly 100 yards ahead of the next-best team in the conference, but they throw it enough to produce the leader in average receiving yards (Demaryius Thomas).

“They say he watches film on fast forward,” Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said of Johnson. “Just watches players. Because the way you line up in traditional games is not relative to him.”

More than anything, Johnson brought the sort of bravado that had been missing under his predecessor, Chan Gailey, whose program became mired in what seemed to be the permanent shadow of state rival Georgia. Johnson knocked off the Bulldogs in his very first year, ending a seven-year losing streak in the series.

Even an upset loss to Georgia last weekend did little to stifle Johnson’s confidence. He joked on a radio appearance Tuesday about punching Bulldog fans who gloated a little too much. He shrugged off anyone who suggested the ACC championship game had lost its luster because both Georgia Tech and Clemson lost their regular-season finales to unranked Southeastern Conference schools (the Tigers were beaten by South Carolina).

“We’re 10-2. We don’t have to apologize for anything,” said Johnson, whose team is trying to win its first ACC title since 1990. “We’re going to be here for a while. This won’t be the last time we play Georgia.”

Swinney shares Johnson’s confidence, though he expresses in a different way. He’s more exuberant, more focused on the positive, but his methods have worked just as well as Johnson’s, reviving a one-time powerhouse that was in disarray after Tommy Bowden was forced out midway through last season.

Swinney took over on an interim basis, then landed the job permanently even though he’d never even been a coordinator. There were those who doubted if he had the right stuff, and they became even more vocal when the Tigers got off to a 2-3 start. But six straight wins gave No. 25 Clemson a shot at its first ACC title since 1991.

“He’s always encouraging, and wants the best for me,” star running back C.J. Spiller said. “If there’s a problem, he’ll come to me, address the problem, and not think he can solve the problem, like some coaches. He’s going to come to you and see if you (both) can up with a great solution.

“He’s someone I’m going to keep in contact with my whole life.”

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