Ellis Johnson: Long road back to The Rock
Published: Thursday, September 13, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 13, 2012 02:09
The 2011-2012 school year was one of transition at the University of Southern Mississippi. After a year that saw football win a conference championship and men’s basketball return to the NCAA tournament, Southern Miss was faced with the task of replacing head coaches in two sports, an athletic director and a university president. In the course of about seven months, an interim athletic director hired a new football coach and a new basketball coach, and an interim president hired a new athletic director.
The first hire that attempted to smooth the turmoil and lead the school out of the transitional stage brought back a familiar face. Ellis Johnson had served as the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at the University of South Carolina for four years, but a couple stops before that Johnson coached the Nasty Bunch as defensive coordinator during the 1988 and 1989 seasons.
“Ellis Johnson emerged as the absolute best candidate to lead Southern Miss football at this time primarily because of his significant experience,” former USM President Martha Saunders told USA Today.
Johnson, who is married and has three children, was born in Winnsboro, S.C. on Dec. 23, 1951. He attended and played defensive end at The Citadel, where he was hired for his first coaching job. Johnson coached defensive ends at The Citadel during the 1975 season and spent six seasons at two South Carolina high schools-- Gaffney and Spartanburg.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs of Gardner-Webb University gave Johnson his first college head coaching job in 1983. Johnson led the Runnin’ Bulldogs to a 5-6 season before departing for the defensive coordinator position at Appalachian State for a season and then onto C-USA rival East Carolina for three seasons.
The 1988 season found Johnson in Hattiesburg as the defensive coordinator under Curley Hallman for two seasons. Southern Miss finished with ten wins in his first season, which was tied for the most wins in school history until last year’s 12-year campaign.
After his first stint in Hattiesburg, Johnson started his first of two stints at the University of Alabama. In his first go-round, Johnson coached the outside linebackers and was part of the 1992 national championship team under Gene Stallings, which was led by that year’s number one ranked defense. Johnson then spent three years in Clemson as their defensive coordinator before finding his way back to Tuscaloosa from 1997 to 2000 as the defensive coordinator.
Johnson’s work granted him another head coaching position, this time at The Citadel. He served for three seasons as head coach and finished with a 12-22 record over those seasons.
Mississippi State hired Sylvester Croom as their head coach in 2004. Croom then brought in Johnson to run the defense. In Johnson’s last game at Mississippi State, the Bulldogs defeated Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl. Most C-USA fans will remember that season as the season when the Knight’s Kevin Smith led the nation in rushing. Smith was held 70 yards below his average by Johnson’s defense. The next season, Johnson was at South Carolina working for Steve Spurrier.
“Southern Miss is special,” Johnson said at an introductory press conference in December. “From the time I worked here, it has held a special place in my heart. It’s a place where I am convinced you can always be successful.”
On Monday, Johnson again shared his thoughts on coming back to Southern Miss
“I’m going to be excited about it,” Johnson said. “I love this place, and I couldn’t wait to ever come back here. I think it’s got one of the greatest environments for a smaller stadium in the country. I just hope it’s a great atmosphere,. I know it will be, and we have to contribute to it when the game starts and keep it that way. I know it’s going to be a lot of excitement for our kids. It’s going to be real neat for the first time as a head coach to be out there for me.”
Croom called Johnson one of the best defensive minds he has worked with. Spurrier said Johnson was one of his best recruiters and key in signing the number one recruit of 2011, Jadevon Clowney. His track record speaks for itself. Last year, South Carolina had four defensive players drafted in the NFL draft, including two in the first round. They were also consistently one of the best defenses in the SEC and the nation. Big things are expected of Johnson, and big things will be delivered. The offensive Conference USA needs to ready itself for the return of the Nasty Bunch.