Missouri alumni Jim Johnson, whose attacking defenses helped the Philadelphia Eagles to one Super Bowl appearance and five NFC title games, died on Tuesday in Philadelphia. He was 68.
A veteran of 22 years as an NFL assistant coach, Johnson was considered one of the top defensive minds in the league. His defenses consistently ranked among the best in the league, including last season, when the Eagles finished third in total defense and fell one victory short of the Super Bowl.
Johnson played football at Missouri from 1960 to 1962, and as a quarterback under coach Dan Devine in '62, led the Tigers in passing. A report posted on The Philadelphia Inquirer Web site, philly.com, says Johnson had surprising success in college.
"I remember recruiting him," Devine told the Inquirer in a 1999 interview. "We were really after his neighbor, who was one of the top players in the country. When they visited, we paid all the attention to the other kid and kind of neglected Jim. As it turned out, Jim was one of our best players. After being a defensive halfback his junior year, he was our starting quarterback his senior year."
Johnson began coaching in 1967 as the head coach at Missouri Southern College, and also was an assistant at Drake and Indiana, according to the Inquirer's report, which notes that Johnson reunited with Devine in 1977 when he took the job as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish, with Joe Montana at quarterback, won the national championship that year. When Devine stepped down a few years later, he said he suggested Johnson as his replacement, but Gerry Faust got the job instead.
Johnson coached in the NFL as an assistant with the Phoenix Cardinals and the Indianapolis Colts before Andy Reid hired Johnson to be his defensive coordinator shortly after Reid got his first head coaching job with the Eagles in 1999.
According to an Associated Press report, from 2000 to 2008, Johnson's Philadelphia defenses ranked second in the NFL in sacks (390). During his 10-year tenure, the Eagles made the playoffs seven times and he produced 26 Pro Bowl selections.
"There's been no finer coach or man than Jim Johnson," team chairman Jeffrey Lurie said. "The Eagles family has been blessed and everyone who's surrounded the football team or surrounded Jim in everything he conducted himself, we had a true gem here and there aren't a lot of Jims."
Johnson had taken a leave of absence from the team in May as he continued to battle a cancerous tumor on his spine. On Sunday, the Eagles announced that Sean McDermott would replace Johnson.
In January, Johnson, who had been treated for melanoma in 2001, complained of back pain and coached from the press box in the Eagles' playoff win over the New York Giants and in the loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC championship.
An MRI after the divisional playoff win against the Giants on Jan. 11 alerted doctors that something might be wrong. Following the Arizona loss, the team announced the cancer had returned and Johnson would undergo more treatments.
Johnson had recovered sufficiently to coach during the team's first post-draft minicamp in May. But he moved around on a motorized scooter during practices and said he wasn't certain he'd be able to return for the season.
Reid and team president Joe Banner visited Johnson in the hospital on Monday. Reid said he spoke with Johnson a few days before the visit and football was on his mind.
"He was very concerned about the starting date of training camp," Reid said. "He had all the dates down and he knew them. Amazing."
Coaches across the league paid homage to Johnson's impact on their careers and the league.
"He was a dear friend and a special person," said St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, a member of the Eagles defensive staff under Johnson for eight seasons. "Jim meant the world to me, both personally and professionally."
"He made me believe I could coach at this level," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh, an Eagles assistant for nine seasons with Johnson. "In football, he was a pioneering and brilliant strategist, changing the way defense is played in the NFL."
"Jim was tailor-made to coach in Philadelphia," said Broncos safety Brian Dawkins, who played 10 seasons for Johnson in Philadelphia. "He was a tough coach who wasn't afraid to let you know how he was feeling, but at the same time, he cared about us deeply."
Johnson is survived by his wife Vicky, two children and four grandchildren.