Jan. 4, 2014
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson shouts instructions during Friday’s practice for the BCS Championship Game (Kirby Lee/USA Today photo)
By Phillip Marshall
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – For Ellis Johnson and Randy Sanders, the 2012 football season couldn’t have been much worse. Between them, they won two games, lost 22 games and lost two jobs.
Johnson, getting a late-career chance to be a head coach for the second time, found a near-impossible situation at Southern Mississippi. He went 0-12. Meanwhile, to the north, Kentucky was going 2-10. Sanders was the offensive coordinator. Head coach Joker Phillips and his staff, including Sanders, were shown the door.
Yet, just more than a year after they were facing uncertain futures, Friday they faced the media throng here to cover Monday’s BCS Championship Game between No. 2 Auburn (12-1) and No. 1 Florida State (13-0) at the Rose Bowl.
Johnson joined first-year Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn’s staff as defensive coordinator last December. When Florida State quarterbacks coach Dameyune Craig also moved to Auburn, Sanders joined Jimbo Fisher’s Florida State staff as quarterbacks coach.
Johnson, who in four seasons as defensive coordinator had made South Carolina’s defense a force in the Southeastern Conference, had numerous options. He chose Auburn. He said, looking back over the past two seasons, he wouldn’t change anything.
“Had I gone down there as a 32-year-old coach trying to start a coaching career, it would have been a bigger disappointment,” Johnson said. “… The head coach has to win ballgames, so I'm not pushing that off. But there were things I couldn't control. It's been fun moving. My family has been happy. It’s a great community, all the things you need for a personal situation.
“Working for Gus, competing with him, back at a school that has a chance to win national championships, it's been fun. It would have been fun and rewarding whether last year happened or not.”
When things went sour at Kentucky, Sanders, who was forced to resign in 2005 after 15 seasons at Tennessee, wasn’t certain he would get another opportunity to coach at the game’s highest level. Then Fisher called. Sanders soon found himself coaching redshirt freshman Jameis Winston, who would win the Heisman Trophy.
“You ask has his life changed. Well, he's changed mine,” Sanders said. “Last year at this time I was 2-10 and out of a job. To be here at Florida State in the national championship game is a dream come true for me.”
Coaching on opposite sidelines will be nothing new for Johnson and Sanders. Counting this season, Johnson has coached in 17 Southeastern Conference seasons – eight in two stints at Alabama, four at Mississippi State and four at South Carolina. Sanders spent 22 seasons in the SEC at Tennessee and Kentucky. They have coached against each other 14 times. Each has been on the winning side seven times. Monday’s game will be a tiebreaker of sorts.
While Florida State was laying waste to the ACC, Auburn fought its way to the SEC championship, three times scoring winning touchdowns in the final 25 seconds. After Tre Mason scored with 1:19 left to give Auburn the lead at Texas A&M, a Dee Ford sack of Johnny Manziel on the game’s final play preserved the victory.
“I have to say that playing and competing in the SEC is different,” Johnson said. “When the situation occurred at Southern Miss and I had an opportunity to jump back in this conference, I was excited. … It's always been, I guess, that lure to go back and coach against the best coaches and play week in and week out against undoubtedly the best players in America.”
That experience, Johnson said, will serve the Tigers well on the game’s biggest stage Monday night.
“Iron sharpens iron,” Johnson said. “It's an old saying Coach (Charlie) Harbison always says, and I think our schedule and our slate that we've played is going to make us a better football team in the end.”
Sanders said he and Johnson have been part of some memorable games. He said he has no doubt that Auburn’s defense will be ready to play hard and play well.
“You know his guys are going to be very well-coached,” Sanders said. “They're going to be in good positions. If you're going to beat 'em, you're going to earn what you get. There are no freebies.”
Johnson, at 62 years old, has been coaching for 39 years. That experience, Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae said, has been valuable for Auburn players in staging what could become the biggest turnaround in the history of college football.
“Coach Johnson is an amazing coach,” Eguae said. “You can tell hearing him speak that he's been through it all as far as being a football coach. You just got to soak it up. I'm like a sponge when Coach Johnson talks. I try to take it all in. That's how we all are.”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: