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A win worthy of a smile
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Forsyth County News
How big was Georgia Tech’s 28-23 upset of Virginia Tech on Saturday night?

Big enough to put a smile on coach Paul Johnson’s face. Almost.

I’m talking about a real smile here. Not one of those sarcastic sneers he directs at game officials and media members. I mean a real, honest-to-goodness happy grin.

Not that there’s anything wrong with wearing a stern game face. After all, college football is serious business, especially in this part of the country.

But Johnson carries his game face to another level. He wears a perpetual scowl, always looking as if he just discovered an egregious error. I looked up “game face” in the dictionary just to see if Johnson’s countenance appeared beside the definition.

We associate coaches with their game day demeanor because that’s where we see them most often. Poor Mark Richt always looks like he’s suffering from a raging case of heartburn. Steve Spurrier’s always agitated. Can’t anyone meet his standards?

Charlie Weis wears the perplexed expression of a kid who just had his lunch money stolen. Urban Meyer exhibits a confident, serene gaze with just the hint of a grin, as if to tell us he knows what’s coming next.

But no one exhibits the striking sideline intensity of Paul Johnson. And because that’s how he comes across to us, we had to wonder if he really let himself enjoy Saturday’s big win.

Wins like this don’t come along very often. In fact, it’s been 47 years — and 18 failed attempts — since Tech toppled a Top Five opponent at home.

That game, from Nov. 17, 1962, still stands out in the annals of Tech football history. Bobby Dodd’s Yellow Jackets downed Bear Bryant’s undefeated, top-ranked Alabama team, 7-6. Alabama hadn’t lost since the fourth game of the season. The 1960 season.

Tech denied Alabama’s two-point conversion attempt to retain the lead and then intercepted a Joe Namath pass in the end zone with 65 seconds left. Bobby Dodd always called it his greatest victory.

How great was it? Consider that in 1991 fan balloting, five players who participated in that game were voted onto Tech’s All-Time team: guard Rufus Guthrie, center Bill Curry, tight end Billy Martin, quarterback Billy Lothridge and defensive lineman Larry Stallings.

You could actually call it six. Lothridge was also voted Tech’s all-time best punter.

What makes this so amazing? Tech lost at least three games every year from 1957 through 1965. This wasn’t Tech’s finest era of football, especially when compared to Dodd’s success in the early 50’s.

What stood out was that signature win over the defending national champions in 1962.

So, for Tech to do something that evoked memories of the glorious ‘62 Alabama game was truly a landmark occasion for Johnson and his Tech program. Something to be savored.

The Tech student body did its part, storming the field in celebration, parading through campus with a goalpost held hostage, and partying like it was, well, 1962.

And Johnson? Here’s part of his opening statement from his post-game press conference: “I’m proud of our guys. It was a good win. I think Virginia Tech has a good football team.

“But winning makes the next game bigger. That’s what happens when you win. We’ll enjoy this one tonight, but tomorrow we’ll get ready to go to Charlottesville and play Virginia.”

That strikes me as a very revealing comment. Johnson saw the beauty of Tech’s win as making the next game bigger. You got the impression that he would celebrate by beginning to scheme for the Wahoos.

If the goal of coaching is making your players better, constantly striving to make them as good as they can possibly be, doesn’t that require intense scrutiny during games? Didn’t a pretty good coach named Lombardi remark that he drove his teams toward perfection, an unattainable goal, knowing that they would achieve excellence in the pursuit of perfection?

To be sure, Tech hasn’t reached perfection. Quarterback Josh Nesbitt completed one pass to each Tech Saturday night, though he did run 23 times for 122 yards. The defense, maligned and sieve-like over the previous fortnight, gave a rousing performance. But the Hokies broke some big plays, and stayed alive until the end.

More important than fixing those things is breaking the Gailey Era tradition of following a big win with a big letdown. If the look on Paul Johnson’s face is any indication, Virginia’s in trouble.