In January, the College Football Hall of Fame announced the 18 former players and four former coaches who would make up the induction class of 2023. Among the four coaches are two former rivals who battled for a decade as head coaches for the state of Georgia’s two marquee college football programs.
Paul Johnson (Georgia Tech) and Mark Richt (University of Georgia) are again linked to each other now, since the special exhibits made for each member of the class were unveiled at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta earlier this month. The CFB Hall of Fame opened its limited-run installation – which showcases one-of-a-kind artifacts in each inductee’s locker and celebrates the careers and contributions of the players and coaches alike – on September 21.
The exhibits feature interactive components and opportunities to take home specialized memorabilia celebrating the 2023 inductions of college football legends like Tim Tebow, Reggie Bush, Luke Kuechly, Dwight Freeney, DeAngelo Williams and more.
“In January, we learn who the class is going to be and then over the course of the year, the Hall of Fame and the National Football Foundation (NFF) work together on contacting the individuals and – the former institutions of higher learning that they worked for – and we try to acquire artifacts and documents to commemorate the inductee’s career,” said Denis Crawford, an Exhibit Designer and Historian for the CFB Hall of Fame.
“Every fall, we create a locker room in which they join their brand new teammates. We have a temporary gallery space here at the Hall of Fame and we have 22 enshrinees this year, so there are 22 separate lockers for each.”
Each locker includes, as a CFB HOF press release says, “a treasure trove of memorabilia.” Things like game-worn jerseys, helmets and other significant artifacts that give fans a glimpse into the storied careers of inductees.
“Coach Johnson has a very, very well stocked locker, especially given his three stops and the great respect and esteem that those schools have for him. All three schools: Georgia Southern, Navy, Georgia Tech … they were very generous in making sure his career was very well represented in the locker.”
Joining Johnson and Richt in the coach’s wing of the exhibit are Monte Cater and Roy Kramer (Central Michigan).
“We always try to put the coaches together (in the same room, or location). We have (Johnson) next to Monte Carter, who was a very successful Division II coach, and we also have him caddy-cornered, kind of, to Terrence Mathis, who was another Georgia legend for his long, prosperous career with the (Atlanta) Falcons. We kind of wanted to put the (Georgia) guys together in that way.”
But, more considerations were made regarding the proximity between all that Georgia Tech memorabilia in Johnson’s locker, and all that red and black in Richt’s. Nothing says college football like the purposeful separation of exhibits because they represent two rivals.
“I did put a locker between (Richt) and Coach Johnson. Like I said, I wanted to make sure each man had proper respect paid to them. I worried that if I put them side-by-side, too many people would be, you know, bickering back and forth,” said Crawford.
“They both had a lot of respect for each other and they had a respect for that (UGA v GT) rivalry. I wanted to make sure that there was still a respectful distance so that Georgia and Georgia Tech fans didn’t meet at the locker for a – you know, this is a place to honor greatness, not a place to settle arguments.”
Leave those for the stadium parking lots post-game.
Considered to be one of the “masters” of the triple-option offense, Johnson’s unwavering consistency in both coaching style and public demeanor were big parts of his success at all three schools he coached for. He finished his career with a record of 189-99 at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech (1997-2018).
“Be yourself,” he said in January when asked about what he learned from mentor and fellow Georgia Southern coaching legend Erk Russell. “I think (Russell) taught me that the best version of yourself is simply that, just be who you are and let the rest sort itself out.”
It was in Statesboro where he burst onto the coaching scene and it was under his leadership that Georgia Southern won back-to-back FCS National Championships in 1999 and 2000. Johnson guided the Eagles to four straight FCS semifinal games from 1998-2001. The Eagles were 4-7 in 1996 prior to Johnson’s arrival in Statesboro before the 1997 season. Southern went on to win 10 games that first season with Johnson as its rookie head coach.
It was only just getting started. Over a five-year span, his Eagles racked up 62 wins, two National Championship titles and three title game appearances. In 1998, the program (and Johnson’s career potentially) changed forever. That was the year College Football Hall-of-Famer Adrian Peterson (2017 class) enrolled in Statesboro.
In 1998, Peterson set an NCAA record for most rushing yards by a freshman in a single season (1,932). The consistency of Peterson’s greatness – he rushed for 100+ yards in 48 straight games – was multiplied by his playing in Johnson’s option offense. Together, they helped to put Southern back on the college football map.
The 1999 title came against Youngstown State. A fact not lost on a certain historian and exhibit designer.
“Georgia Southern was very nice to us because, of course, he won two national championships down there (in Statesboro). We have a wonderful team photo of the 1999 1-AA National Championship team, which breaks my heart because they defeated my alma mater Youngstown State in that game,” Crawford said with a laugh. “But I'll be a grown up about it.”
Johnson, Peterson and quarterback Tracy Ham are the only Eagles in the Hall of Fame.
The College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023 will be inducted during the 65th NFF Awards Dinner on December 5, 2023 at the ARIA Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. For more information about the Hall of Fame, including tickets to visit the locker exhibit of Johnson, visit cfbhall.com.