Johnson bridges the past and the future

Originally Published: November 3, 2004
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

NORMAN, Okla. -- Merv Johnson's office in the Barry Switzer Center at Oklahoma University is a study in camouflage.

A thicket of fishing rods rests in one corner. A crammed bookshelf contains fiction from Larry McMurtry and John Grisham, plus Merle Haggard's memoirs. The television is showing a banal daytime talk show. Pictures of his seven grandchildren proliferate.

There are no trappings in this office to suggest that the quiet, polite man behind the desk is a living, breathing museum of college football.

Merv Johnson has been around long enough to play in the Big Seven at Missouri, coach the wishbone in the Big Eight at Oklahoma and now serves as the Sooners' director of football operations in the Big 12. He coached at No. 2 Arkansas alongside Frank Broyles against No. 1 Texas in 1969, a game so huge that sitting president Richard Nixon attended. He called passing plays for Joe Montana at Notre Dame in the 1970s and running plays for Jamelle Holieway at Oklahoma in the 1980s -- and won national championships with both. He might have been the first assistant coach to have his own TV show. He was a first-hand witness to both Rudy and The Boz, and once saw his starting quarterback make the cover of Sports Illustrated in handcuffs.

Yeah, Merv has seen some ball.

"I've seen good and I've seen bad," Johnson said. "And let me tell ya, good's better."

It's all good these days in Norman, where the undefeated Sooners are rolling toward what could be their third BCS championship game in five seasons. And even though Johnson is reaching slow-down age he's still in the middle of all the action, wearing multiple hats within the OU program.

He coordinates the Oklahoma walk-on program. In that role, he receives piles of videotape from recruiting services, and from players who dream of becoming a Sooner. Johnson gets the first read on a lot of prospects, and coach Bob Stoops trusts him to give a reliable initial appraisal of their ability.

"Every once in a while you'll find a heck of a player," Johnson said. "One tape had Jeff Byers (an offensive lineman now playing as a true freshman at USC). The tape showed up and I said, 'Wow!' We tried to recruit him. But for every one like that, you get dozens of others you can't recruit.

"You get some strange deals. I'll watch some of them and say, 'That guy saw the movie 'Rudy' too many times.' And I know the real Rudy."

(Johnson knows Rudy Ruettiger well enough that when Rudy was a graduate assistant at Notre Dame, he used to babysit Johnson's kids. Johnson recently introduced Ruettiger at a speaking engagement in Tulsa.)

This last summer Johnson was contacted by a guy he described as "50 pounds overweight, who hadn't played football since 1995." Merv the Merciless told him: "I've got a better chance of running sprints in the Olympics than you do of making this football team."

Little harsh, isn't it?

"I know it's important to them, but sometimes it's hard to be encouraging," Johnson said. "Once you're away from it for a year or two, you have no chance."

He's the color analyst on Oklahoma radio broadcasts, which puts him in the position of praising and criticizing the players and coaches he sees on a daily basis.

"You've got to be careful not to second-guess the coaches," Johnson said. "But I don't mind saying 'This player got beat on a play,' or if somebody doesn't look good. There has to be some accountability.

"Sometimes we do kids a disservice by saying a player is being suspended for 'team reasons.' I think maybe we should say what he did. Why not be held accountable?"

Johnson is no stranger to broadcasting, having had a weekly TV show during the 1980s as Oklahoma's offensive coordinator. It might not have been riveting television -- Johnson usually gave a scouting report on the upcoming opponent -- but it illustrates his popularity during the Switzer glory days.

Johnson also helps players with financial aid, summer jobs and comp tickets. Between that and his other duties, he finds a reason to do what he's done most every day of every autumn of his adult life: go watch football practice. He's welcome anytime.

"Bob has just been great to me," Johnson said of Stoops. "He makes you feel like you contribute, makes you feel good. But it has not been a problem for me being away from coaching, because I still get to be around the players every day. Had I been deprived of that relationship, I would have really missed it."

Many of today's players aren't big on gridiron history. If they were, they'd have a phenomenal resource on their hands in Johnson. The man can tell some stories about a lot of teams, games and players -- most notably Montana.

"Joe was the last quarterback on the depth chart when we got there," Johnson said. "He moved up to No. 2, but he was still behind Rick Slager. Slager started, and Joe would come in and bail us out when we needed it."

The reason Montana couldn't get past Slager was because of what Johnson called "a love-hate relationship with coach (Dan) Devine. Joe was a little bit nonchalant in practice. He worked hard, but he didn't let a bad play bother him. But it bothered coach Devine. A bad play would kill his soul."

In Montana's junior year, Devine stubbornly started the season with No. 3 on the bench. After a shocking upset loss to Mississippi, Montana took over. The Fighting Irish didn't lose again that year while rolling to the national championship.

"He was amazing," Johnson said. "Very cool, never got flustered. I called all the plays. He changed a lot of them, and his choices were always better than mine.

"He kind of had a rabbit's foot, too, and that carried over to the pros. Against North Carolina (one of Montana's fabled comebacks), his first pass hits a linebacker and he drops it. Against Air Force (a 31-30 comeback win from a 30-10 deficit), same thing, then he completes 12 in a row."

Johnson lists Montana's greatest comeback performance as a defeat: a controversial 27-25 loss at USC, after Notre Dame had come back from a 24-6 deficit for a 25-24 lead in the final minute. But his final game at Notre Dame was an all-timer as well.

The Irish were facing Houston in an ice storm at the Cotton Bowl and getting pounded, 34-14, midway through the fourth quarter. Montana, who had been treated at halftime for hypothermia, led Notre Dame to three touchdowns to win the game.

The final score came with two seconds left. Johnson, from the sidelines, yelled to Montana, "You call whatever you want. At that point we were all freezing and in shock."

Montana threw a short pass to Kris Haines for the touchdown, cementing his college legacy. Then it was on to the pros, and eventually to the very short list of the greatest players in NFL history.

Despite that, Johnson isn't so sure he'd put Montana on top of his list of the best collegians he's coached. The first name out of his mouth is former Oklahoma tight end Keith Jackson.

That's doubly surprising because in the Oklahoma wishbone, passing was generally the last resort. The Sooners' bone, one of the most entertaining offenses of all time, centered on the quarterback's feet, not his arm.

"It was a fun offense to coach," Johnson said. "People hated to play against it. But it was hard to find a quarterback who could do what the offense asked you to do who could also throw well enough to get you out of third and long, or come from behind. As long as you could throw when you want to, and not when you had to, you were OK."

That's where Johnson had a small philosophical difference with Switzer. He loved working for Switzer, but couldn't get him to open up the offense.

"Some of those years, if we had just been willing to throw 8-10 times more a game, we could have really been devastating," he said. "But the minute we'd come up with second-and-10, or take a loss, I knew what his reaction would be."

The wishbone has pretty much died a peaceful but regrettable death in college football -- snuffed out by fast defenses and fixation with the forward pass. The game has moved on since then, and so has Merv Johnson.

Although he's enjoying a blissful career twilight, Johnson has taken one regret with him: He was never a head coach. He worked in prominent positions at some of the game's shrines, but never sat in the big chair.

A few job offers came along but Johnson never bit, waiting for that chance to preside over a powerhouse. The chance never came.

"I probably suffered from being in too good a place," he said. "It's not easy to go places where you can't win much. A couple of my mentors said you should take any head-coaching job you get, and they were probably right. I talked myself out of opportunities."

When Switzer resigned amid scandal at OU in the late 1980s, Johnson figured he'd get the call to take over in Norman. Instead the job went to another assistant, Gary Gibbs.

"I was assistant head coach, and I expected, as other people expected, for me to get the job," Johnson said. "But they made a good choice in Gary, although I certainly was disappointed."

Despite that, Johnson stayed on in Norman and has never left. The wearer of many hats has become as much a fixture in the Oklahoma football program as the band playing "Boomer Sooner."

"I've been able to stay here and raise my family here," he said. "I don't know whether I'd trade that for a head-coaching job somewhere else, I really don't."

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

ALSO SEE