Phillip Marshall: Johnson a tough guy with a warm heart

Aug. 6, 2013

AUBURN, Ala. - If you are a reporter covering college football in the 21st century, there’s a good chance you have come to expect coaches to be polite and friendly and do their best not to tell you much of anything.

And then you come across Ellis Johnson.

Johnson, Auburn’s first-year defensive coordinator, is my kind of guy. He’s 62. I’m 63. His hair is white. So is mine. Best of all, Johnson leaves all the coachspeak for others. He never throws a player under the bus, but when you ask him a question, he answers in his inimitable way.

Ask him where things stand in the competition at linebacker and he’ll tell you he doesn’t know and won’t know until he sees some full-speed hitting. He doesn’t say that sometimes a guy who doesn’t do well in drills turns out to be a good player. He says that sometimes a player who “doesn’t look real cute in a drill” turns out to be a good player.

If it was a good day of practice, Johnson will tell you that. If it was a bad day, he’ll tell you that, too. Ask him what he thinks about just about anything, and he’ll tell you straight up.

He makes reporters smile and media relations folks wince.

Johnson doesn’t stop at telling you players need to be in shape and don’t need to be overweight. He says “A lot of guys can play one play at a lot of weights. Then they get tired and it hurts their flexibility. They lose their fundamentals, lose their stamina and turn into a bad football player.”

The men who play for Johnson and have played for him swear by him. He can tell them they are not performing well enough and even that they just aren’t good enough without belittling them. He’s a tough guy with a compassionate heart. He’s spent most of his life coaching college football and has been admired every step of the way for his intellect, his knowledge, his ability to teach and his mixture of toughness and compassion.

Johnson will tell you that his defensive scheme is 40 percent nickel, 40 percent “old wide-tackle six I learned playing for Frank Beamer,” and “the other little bit is stuff we’ve stolen from other people.” He is proud that it is simple enough that freshmen who are talented enough often can find a place to play early.

With a deep and melodious voice that sounds like part teacher and part preacher, Johnson has a way of making the complicated sound simple. He doesn’t consider himself a guru. He’ll tell you quickly that players, not schemes, win games.

In an increasingly buttoned up world, he’s a throwback.

Rudy Griffin, who played for Johnson at The Citadel and followed him to Alabama, put it this way:

“Three words that describe Coach J: Genuine, driven, dependable. Ellis Johnson always wanted greatness from all of his players. He was not afraid to expect the best out of any of us. He was resolved to the fact that we were capable. I admire that about him to this day.”

Today, when Auburn puts on full gear for the first time in his preseason camp, Johnson will be in his element. After more than 40 years of coaching and playing the game, he still believes what he’s always believed. It’s a tough game, and you win by being mentally and physically tougher than your opponent.

That’s football, the Ellis Johnson way.

 

Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: