Ex-Bama coordinator Johnson, now with Auburn, has seen it all
Ellis Johnson used to roll with the Tide, but Saturday will marks his first Iron Bowl coaching for Auburn. The sage coordinator has been key to the Tigers' turnaround.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Ellis Johnson has seen bad. Ellis Johnson has coached bad. Hell, he was the Southern Miss coach for one awful season in 2012.
But Auburn's defensive coordinator also has seen and coached the best. Seventeen of his 38 years in the profession have been spent in the SEC. When Gus Malzahn breathlessly asked Johnson, moments after it happened, if he had ever seen anything like the Prayer at Jordan-Hare, the coordinator replied:
"Coach, I've seen five or six like that."
So while the biggest Iron Bowl of them all is on our doorstep, we need an oracle like Ellis Johnson to guide us to it. He's 61 and has coached at 10 universities, three high schools and one military academy (The Citadel, twice).
His bosses have included Steve Spurrier and Gene Stallings. He has won a national championship. That career includes two stops at Alabama and eight Iron Bowls. This will be his first with Auburn.
At stake is ... well, everything. The Tigers are a heartbeat away from putting a serious dent in a dynasty and playing for the SEC title. Johnson's defense is not the first thing you think of in the turnaround, but at least it has direction. The Tigers have moved up modestly from 81st to 70th in total defense, from 13 takeaways all of last season to 17 so far this season.
"What happens," Johnson said with a folksy summation of the Tigers, 2013, "is on your bad hair days, you still got a chance to win. You left your best dress at home, but you still look good at what you have [on]."
Before we go any further in examining the Tigers' turnaround, let the oracle speak -- or rather cut through the B.S. It's not so much about Johnson coaching a top-three defense under Spurrier or a top-10 defense at Bama in 1999 or helping Auburn go from 110th to 50th in turnovers caused.
"You can lift all the weights you want," Johnson said. "It's what the game is today. If you ain't got a quarterback, you ain't got a football team."
The man knows that much. Nick Marshall is the main reason, on the field, the Tigers have gone from 3-9 to 10-1. There's no Hail Aubie, no comebacks, no win at Texas A&M if not for the former defensive back at Georgia.
But it takes a (coaching) village.
The Tigers were unfocused mentally, that much was for sure when Johnson was hired in December.
"Some of them were resentful," he said. "Some of them were beat down and had no confidence. Collectively, a lot of them didn't understand what it was going to take to fix it."
Johnson credits Malzahn and strength coach Ryan Russell for changing the collective mindset. The head coach told the staff that they wouldn't watch film from 2012. Everyone would be judged equally on what they did for the new staff, not what was on film from the old staff.
"I think the players were desperate for change in their hearts," Johnson said.
There was a point in August, when the quarterback job was up in the air, that Malzahn solicited the opinion of Johnson and his defensive coaches.
"[They], in unison, kind of said, 'Nick gives us the most trouble,' Johnson said. "Take Nick out of the box, you ain't got all the parts. He's not Cam Newton by any stretch, but he gave us a chance."
A chance is all Auburn has needed at times in this magical season. If there is one participant who can make sense of it this week, it's Johnson. His talent allowed him to escape last year's mess at Hattiesburg and help turn around Auburn this year. His experience allows him to speak frankly on almost any subject.
That's one reason why Malzahn hired him. Johnson's knowledge makes him an educated neutral observer on almost anything college football.
"Auburn should always be a top-10 team that sometimes doesn't make it, sometimes does," Johnson said recently from his office. "Nobody can step [up] there everywhere without a blip."
This year, Auburn skipped the blip and went right to championship aspirations. To date, it has accomplished the biggest turnaround in the sport -- from 3-9 to 10-1. The Tigers are threatening the NCAA all-time record for biggest turnaround, Hawaii 1999-2000.
"Obviously transition is not something new to me," said Johnson, who has changed jobs 13 times. "Going through what I had been through, I walked into a situation where I knew we were going to have a hard time winning.
"I'm looking at a group of kids that were frustrated but they were also beat down. You're talking about getting every reaction you can imagine. But I had already seen it."
Southern Miss was 0-12 last season. If you want to blame Johnson for that, go ahead, but not much has changed in Hattiesburg. The Eagles currently sport the longest losing streak in the country, 23 games. Johnson is comfortable, perhaps where he belongs as a coordinator, coaching this week against the program with the second-longest winning streak. Alabama has won 15 in a row.
He has been at the top with Bama, part of a 28-game winning streak and that national championship with Stallings from 1990-93. He has also seen it crumble and die off. From 1997-2000, Johnson was part of the Mike Dubose staff that dug out of NCAA probation only to see it slide, in part, because of Dubose's personal failings.
Two years after Johnson arrived the second time, Alabama won the SEC before losing to Michigan in the Orange Bowl.
"We recruited our way out of [probation] in 18 months because it's Alabama," Johnson said.
From there, Bama continued its meandering post-Bear ways. Until Nick Saban showed up in 2007.
"There may be a bad year," Johnson said. "But it should never hang on you."
The statement applies to both Alabama and Auburn this week. There haven't been many bad hair days for either lately.
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