ATLANTA — After knocking off his biggest rival, Paul Johnson couldn't help himself.
"Not bad for a high-school offense," the Georgia Tech coach quipped to a reporter.
That's just the way P.J. rolls.
He relishes the role of underdog, the little guy defying the odds, which makes Saturday night's appearance in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game all the more satisfying.
He is confident to the point of arrogance, prickly at times, and sure doesn't mind sparring a bit with those who take issue with that triple-option offense.
"Why do I poke back after being poked at for 30 years?" he said, breaking into a sly grin and mockingly answering his own question. "I have no idea."
The No. 12 Yellow Jackets (10-2) will face defending national champion Florida State (12-0), a team that has gone more than two years without a loss.
Don't expect Johnson and his team to show the least bit of deference to the No. 2 Seminoles.
"He's one of the most competitive guys that I've ever met," said Ted Roof, who once coached against Johnson and now serves as his defensive coordinator. "He's also got a lot of pride."
Johnson is defiant toward those who say his beloved offensive scheme is out of touch with the modern football world, who claim he'll never be able land a bunch of A-list recruits when he insists on using a system that doesn't translate to the NFL.
"People are going to say what they want to say. I have a whole body of work," Johnson said. "I've been a head coach for 18 years. Fourteen of those 18 years, my teams have won their division or their conference. If that's not good enough, I guess it's not good enough. I'll let someone else make that decision. At times, I like to have some fun and poke back. But I'm past the defending stage. People can figure it out on their own."
As with all things Johnson, the resume is a bit complicated.
Take those 14 "titles." To reach that gaudy number, he includes winning the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy five times while at Navy, not to mention an ACC Coastal Division crown in 2008, when Virginia Tech actually won the tiebreaker and went to the title game.
No asterisks are required with this team.
Bouncing back from consecutive October losses, Georgia Tech closed the regular season as hot as any team in the country. The Jackets dominated Clemson 28-6 and snapped a five-year losing streak against their mighty state nemesis, beating Georgia 30-24 in one of the wackiest games you'll ever see, which featured three fumbles at the 1-yard line, three blocked kicks, and ended in overtime on D.J. White's interception.
Johnson was honored Tuesday as the ACC coach of the year, the third time he's received that honor in seven years at Georgia Tech.
"At the end of the day, it's about winning football games," White said. "No matter who's on your team, no matter what five-star recruits you've got, it's about winning games. That's pretty much been his whole theme throughout the season."
Coming into the season, Johnson was on a bit of a hot seat.
After going 19-7 his first two years, which included an ACC title that was vacated because of NCAA rules violations, Johnson went 28-25 over the last four seasons. Athletic director Mike Bobinski, new to the job and not the one who hired Johnson, conceded there was unhappiness over the direction of the program. The AD was reticent about discussing an extension with his football coach.
In fact, only recently did Bobinski finally get around to offering a new deal to Johnson, who has just two years left on his contract.
Johnson made it clear that he's eager to stick with the Yellow Jackets for the long haul. He also knows that many top-level schools would not be interested in a coach who comes with own unique offense, no matter how much success he's had.
"I enjoy the players. I enjoy the school," he said. "It's been good here."
At 57, he's not about to change.
It's the P.J. Way, take it or leave it.