"He said he was sorry the way things worked out and that I had done a good job there, and wanted to know if I would be interested in coming down there to join his staff," Groh says.
Just like that, Groh was the Yellow Jackets' new defensive coordinator.
"I really believe in what we are doing offensively, and he feels that same way about what he does defensively," Johnson says. "When we played them and we found an opening or weakness, he usually countered. That's kind of what intrigued me about him.
"I don't know if it matters what you do on offense and defense as long as you have a package that you understand. He's someone who has a system who I think can help us win some games."
Rarely does a school win a conference championship and make a radical change. But that's what Johnson did after last season, firing defensive coordinator Dave Wommack soon after the ACC-champion Yellow Jackets lost to Iowa 24-14 in the Orange Bowl to close an 11-3 season.
When Wommack left, he took his 4-3 defense with him. Enter Groh and his 3-4 defense.
"For 40 years, I have been a husband, father and a coach," Groh says. "That is what I do. I don't play golf, I putter in the garden, I think about football, I think about our players. That's what I do. That's what I always intended to continue to do.
"When this opportunity came up, it was very intriguing because it would enable me to continue to be who I am and do what I feel challenged by."
Hey, there's the new guy
Here is a list of the new defensive coordinators this season, listed by league. One important note: Coordinators at schools with new head coaches weren't included.
Georgia Tech OUT: Dave Wommack, fired
IN: Al Groh, former coach at Virginia (had been fired after last season
UTEP OUT: Osia Lewis, fired (now coordinator of the UFL's Hartford Colonials)
IN: Andre Patterson, from defensive line coach at UNLV (had been fired at end of season)
OUT: Doug Graber, retired
IN: Jay Hood, promoted from defensive ends coach
OUT: Eric Lewis, fired (now a financial advisor in San Francisco area)
IN: Phil Snow, had been out of football (most recent job was as linebacker coach of the NFL's Detroit Lions in 2008)
California OUT: Bob Gregory, to Boise State as defensive assistant
IN: Clancy Pendergast, from NFL's Oakland Raiders, where he was to be secondary coach (he was the Kansas City Chiefs' defensive coordinator last season but was fired after the season)
Stanford OUT: Andy Buh, to Nevada as coordinator, and Ron Lynn, to director of player development at Stanford
IN: Vic Fangio, from NFL's Baltimore Ravens, where he had been linebacker coach
OUT: Cal Lee, demoted to defensive line coach
IN: Dave Aranda, promoted from defensive line coach
Nevada OUT: Nigel Burton, to Portland State as head coach
IN: Andy Buh, from co-coordinator/linebacker coach at Stanford
And that is to coach defense. This spring, he began installing his beloved 3-4 scheme and liked what he saw. It's an alignment that he learned how to run while working in the NFL for Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. And it's a scheme that served Groh well in his nine seasons at Virginia. He was 59-53 as Cavs coach, and the 3-4 defense was the backbone of his best teams.
"We will be a more aggressive and attacking defense, which is something we haven't had the last couple of years," Tech senior cornerback Mario Butler says. "We will attack and not sit back from the defensive line all the way back to the secondary."
Butler is one of eight starters returning on a defense that was average at best in 2009. Johnson expected more, which is why Groh now is in Atlanta.
Despite ranking third in the nation in time of possession -- thanks to Johnson's ball-control, option attack -- Tech still yielded an average of 24.8 points per game to rank sixth in the ACC in scoring defense. The Yellow Jackets were seventh in the league in total defense (360.3 ypg).
"We were so inconsistent," Johnson says. "I think we played twice last year without making the other team punt. And there were three other games when the other team only punted once. We were fortunate that we won three of the five, but you aren't going to survive like that for very long."
The big issue was stopping the run, as Tech ranked eighth in the conference (151.6 ypg). Only one ACC team yielded more yards per rush than the Yellow Jackets' average of 4.9 yards -- Florida State at 5.4.
Another issue was a lack of big plays. Tech finished ninth in the ACC in sacks (1.8 per game) and 10th in tackles for loss (4.9 per game).
"Without critiquing anyone else's efforts, obviously they had some issues," Groh says. "When the head coach looks on the field, he has a vision of what the defense should look like. ... Good defense gets his offense back on the field."
It's an offense that again should be among the best in the nation, which is why Georgia Tech finds itself ranked in most preseason top 25s. If Groh can tighten the defense, Tech may be able to repeat as league champ.
Groh's familiarity with ACC offenses means he will hit the ground running, knowing what to expect from each opponent's offense. His defense routinely ranked among the ACC's best, producing talent such as ends Chris Long and Chris Canty and linebackers Clint Sintim, Ahmad Brooks and Darryl Blackstock, among others. Five of Groh's nine Cavaliers defenses ranked in the top half of the ACC.
Running a defense that will backstop a ball-control, clock-eating offense appeals to Groh, whose coaching tree has produced the likes of Indianapolis Colts assistant offensive line coach Ron Prince, Temple coach Al Golden and Virginia coach Mike London.
"When Paul's offenses have gotten the ball, they have held it for a long time," Groh says. "Every defense's objective is to get off the field as fast as it can. The two ways you do that are with takeaways and third-down success.
"In this case, that gets emphasized because the faster that offense gets on the field, the longer it will stay out there. Those two things combined dramatically affect the most important statistic in defensive football, which is points allowed."
Butler understands all of that. He also began to understand and appreciate the intensity and passion that Groh brings to the game.
"He's fiery," Butler says. "And that's a good thing for us. That gets us amped up to see him like that. ...
"I can't wait. We will send someone close to every play, so you will get some type of pressure coming from somewhere. This is going to be fun."