AUBURN - In his deep voice and in the accent of his South Carolina roots, Ellis Johnson can talk about more than three decades of coaching college football. He can talk about championships, about seasons that ended in despair, about some of the great players and great coaches in the South.
Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson with wife Carolina, sons Eli and Charlie and daughter Sandra Elliott
At 61 years old, Johnson walks straight and tall, the way he learned back in Winnsboro, S.C., and as a hard-nosed linebacker at The Citadel. The years have been kind. He and his wife, Caroline, have three children at home. He's widely viewed as one of the top defensive strategists in the college game.
Last month, after an ill-fated season as Southern Mississippi's head coach, Johnson agreed to become the defensive coordinator on first-year head coach Gus Malzahn's Auburn staff. Going back to 1975, when it all began, Johnson has experienced a national championship, four trips to the SEC Championship Game. He has been a successful recruiter, luring Jadeveon Clowney, the nation's top prospect, to South Carolina.
And he's not ready to slow down yet.
"You take an opportunity and work so hard and are sort of absorbed in that situation," Johnson says. "Next thing you know, you get through that three, five or eight years and you are on another journey. You just kind of keep moving forward. Some experiences are pleasant and some unpleasant, but it's always about putting it in the past and moving forward."
Johnson can talk about big wins in big places and about working with some of the biggest names in college football. But those aren't the things he likes talking about most. First and foremost, Johnson is about the young men who play the game.
"Over the years, as these guys come back and they are 35 years old and have two kids, you look back at some of the things you said to them and say 'You know what? This is a pretty important job,'" Johnson says. "I think that is probably the biggest thing that has changed over the years is I understand more now than I did as a young coach that you have an obligation to do more than teach them how to play the game.
"You can be tough on them. You have to be able to tell them no sometimes. There is a place for discipline. There is a place for punishment. But there always has to be that connection and that respect for human dignity. The way you handle young people is extremely important. I believe you are going to be held accountable when it's all over."
Johnson talks to reporters after being introduced as Auburn defensive coordinator
Johnson was defensive coordinator in at Clemson in 1995 when he met Caroline Courie, a Clemson graduate who worked in the ticket office. They were married, and she learned about the life of a college football coach's wife. Twelve-year-old Eli, 10-year-old Sandra Elliott and 8-year-old Charlie were all born in different states.
Along the way, Caroline Johnson saw what was special about her husband on and off the field.
"He's such a perfectionist," Mrs. Johnson says. "I think his players kind of feed off. They know how much Ellis cares for them and they know he will only accept the best from them."
Last Christmas, Mrs. Johnson put together a book for her husband. She talked to players he'd coached over the years and asked them to put their feelings in writing. They did not disappoint. Some examples:
From former South Carolina safety Devonte Holloman:
"The thing I remember about Coach Johnson is he always had my back. From the day I stepped on campus until even now I know he believes in me and in turn made me believe in myself. I will always appreciate that.
"... Three words to describe Coach Johnson: Fundamentals, honesty, perfection."
From former Mississippi State linebacker Jamar Chaney:
Johnson helped South Carolina become a big winner
"What I remember most is just how real he was with his players. He's going to tell you the truth, no matter what. He didn't sugarcoat anything. Honestly, after playing football in high school and college and even now in the NFL, I think he's the best defensive coordinator and linebacker coach I ever had. He made the game seem so easy to me."
From former Citadel/Alabama defensive lineman Rudy Griffin:
"The very first time I met Coach J., I was 17 and in his office on the Citadel campus. His deep voice was unforgettable and his championship rings affirmed his effectiveness as a coach. He allowed me to wear one of his rings during my visit and it was life-changing to identify with that level of excellence.
"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."
In the small town of Winnsboro, population 4,000, John and Earnestine Johnson's three sons were all athletes of note. But education came first for Johnson and his older brothers. John Jr. was 10 years older and Oliver seven years older. Both went on to play football at West Point. Johnson went to The Citadel.
"In a small town like that, I was probably a little different," Johnson says. "Both of my parents were college educated. My dad went to Clemson and my mother to Converse. That was what came first. Like any other little southern town, there wasn't anything to do but play sports and go swimming."
It was at The Citadel that Johnson played for Bobby Ross, who would eventually lead Georgia Tech to a national championship, and became interested in coaching.
"He was pretty intense," Johnson says. "I stayed there as a student coach. That six months I spent around him and the other coaches sealed the deal. I knew I wanted to go into coaching and headed down that path."
The journey would lead him to Gaffney (S.C.) High School, to coaching stops across the South. He was an assistant at Alabama twice, helping win a national championship as outside linebackers coach from 1990-1993 and helping win an SEC championship as defensive coordinator in 1997-2000.As assistant head coach for defense at South Carolina, he helped Steve Spurrier turn the Gamecocks into big winners. He served as defensive coordinator at Clemson and Mississippi State and head coach at Gardner-Webb, at The Citadel and at Southern Mississippi.
Finally, when things went badly at Southern Mississippi, he chose Auburn over numerous other possibilities and joined Malzahn's staff.
"He's a heck of a guy," Johnson says. "He's a wonderful man and a heck of a football coach. Combine that with Auburn's tradition, the SEC. I couldn't ask for more."
On what Johnson hopes is his last stop in college football, he will share the wisdom of his experience with another group of players on another team. And he says he's eager to do it.
"Being a member of a team, you have to have some conformity," Johnson says. "That's not always part of the fabric of this society anymore, but will still work just as hard. They are probably more talented than they used to be and just as driven. You can still motivate them. They are good kids. They want an education. They want to compete. They all want the same things."
Coming Thursday: Johnson talks about his defensive philosophy.