COLUMBIA — He looked like he could fit the part. On Sundays in December with the wind howling inside Lincoln Financial Field, and the noise reigning from a notorious crowd of Philadelphians, Jim Johnson very well could have been the mad scientist.
There are stories. They're the stories about the coach who could never leave the game. They're the stories about cocktail napkins covered in X's and O's, and the father and daughter discussing zone blitzes over the phone. They're the stories that make it seem like the man known for his ability to constantly adapt and scheme must have had a mind that could do nothing but the same. They're the ones that will make sure Jim Johnson goes down as one of the greatest defensive coaches in the history of the National Football League, a wizard who spent 10 years as the Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator concocting a brew of pressure schemes and blitzes that terrorized the backfields of opponents and the minds of offensive coordinators.
Jim Johnson is one of six inductees that make up the 2009 class of the University of Missouri Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame. The other five members, four of them being recognized for athletics and one for an outstanding career in broadcasting, comprise the 20th class of inductees.
* Mahlon Aldridge, broadcaster, 1956-72: Aldridge was involved in the creation and subsequent expansion of the Tiger Radio Network and through his work as a play-by-play man for MU football and basketball became known as the voice of Tiger athletics.
* Ryan Fry, MU baseball, 1995-98: Fry holds numerous career and season records, was named a second-team All-American and was also a two-time Academic All-American.
* Amanda Lassiter, MU women's basketball, 2001-02: Lassiter was the school's first first-round WNBA draft selection and a second-team All-American who led the Tigers to the Sweet Sixteen and 40 wins in just two seasons.
* Sandie Prophete, MU women's basketball, 1986-89: Prophete was an honorable-mention All-American who holds spots near the top on many of the school's career record lists. She has gone on to promote basketball and behavior modeling for young people through an organization called the Harlem Ambassadors.
* 1964 MU baseball team: Finished the year 27-5-1 and as national runner-ups. Went 19-0 and won the Tigers' fourth consecutive Big Eight title.
They're also the stories that will be the least important Friday night.
That's when Jim Johnson will posthumously be inducted into the University of Missouri Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame for his career as a quarterback and safety during what many would call the golden age of Missouri football.
The stories that have followed Johnson's death haven't been ones dominated by words like "genius" or "mastermind." They include terms like father, mentor, husband, and friend.
There are football coaches who spent the better part of a decade trying to understand the mind of a coach who was always a step ahead. If they had ever succeeded they might have been left disappointed.
Sorry guys. Jim Johnson was not a complicated man.
* * *
Bill Tobin could see that he was an athlete. Something about the way he handled himself, maybe. Or the flattop haircut. If nothing else the 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame gave it away.
It was the night that freshmen moved into MU dorms before the start of the fall semester in 1959, and the cafeteria stayed open into the night for the students and families who would be arriving in Columbia. Tobin, a freshman running back from Burlington Junction, made his way over to the man he assumed had to be a lineman. When Tobin was informed that his fellow freshman was actually a quarterback, he had his first worry about college football.
“I thought, ‘What did I get myself into if the quarterback is this big?’” Tobin said.
The quarterback’s name was Jim Johnson, from Maywood, Ill., and after that late-night snack the two men would spend the next four years as best friends. And the 50 that followed.
They joined the same fraternity, Phi Delta Theta. They roomed together. They had the same major, education. And in 1962 they shared the backfield on a Missouri team that went 8-1-2 for coach Dan Devine.
Johnson was the quarterback and Tobin one of the halfbacks in Missouri’s Wing-T formation offense that finished the season seventh in the nation in rushing and ninth in scoring. Johnson’s role as a quarterback in the run-heavy style of play was minimal, but Tobin says that he had a value that has faded in today’s game.
“He was a good blocker,” Tobin said. “You don't hear it now. A quarterback being a good blocker is unheard of.”
Johnson would act as one of three lead blockers on the Missouri Power Sweep that was a staple of Devine’s attack. Along with the fullback and other halfback, Johnson would “lead up the chute” for the halfback receiving a pitch after he had gone in motion.
Johnson’s style of play was what Tobin had come to expect from him in every facet of their relationship. Tobin trusted Johnson with everything, even with occasionally driving his car, a black ’57 Chevy with red interior. Trusting him to lead an offense was easy.
“He was the furthest thing from a phony,” Tobin said. “He was 14-karat gold.”
After they left Missouri each was drafted by NFL teams, Johnson by Buffalo and Tobin by Houston. Both found jobs in professional football after their playing careers, and, in 1994, the two reunited in Indianapolis when Tobin was part of the front office that brought Johnson in as the team's linebackers coach. During their time in Indianapolis, Tobin got to see the qualities that would endear Johnson to each player he coached and each assistant who served under him. They were the same qualities that Tobin had seen 30 years earlier. No one got special treatment. Everything was told exactly how it was. He was honest, and he was demanding. But he was fair.
“Those were two of the best times in my life, when were at Missouri together as players and friends, and then when we worked together in Indianapolis for four years,” Tobin said.
* * *
Vicky Johnson got off the bus in Columbia on her way to Stephens College as Vicky Howell, and as a Southern California girl who had never even heard the term "jock." But as she waited for her luggage to arrive on a separate bus at the Columbia bus station, she was approached by a girl named Kathy Johnson who wanted to tell her that a couple of these jocks wanted to meet her. One was Bill Tobin. The other was Jim Johnson.
Tobin was the talkative one, Vicky Johnson remembers, while early conversations with Johnson "were like pulling teeth." But it was Johnson who was the quickest to act.
"About a week after we met her, I said, 'I think I'm going to call that Vicky,'" Tobin said. "And he already had. I said, 'Well I saw her first!' And he said, "Well, I called her first.'"
Vicky Johnson quickly discovered the depth and the sense of humor of the tall, quiet man. So quickly, in fact, that not even a year later, they were already searching mid-Missouri for a place to be married. They managed to have the three-day waiting period waived after they acquired a marriage license, and three cars full of friends accompanied them to a Methodist church in Mexico, Mo., where they had to grab a minister just back from a fishing trip to perform the ceremony.
Getting swept up in young love doesn’t seem like the sort of thing typical of a man who would become famous for orchestrating the punishment of hapless quarterbacks, but hearing Vicky Johnson helps to understand. The Johnsons had been married for 48 years when Jim Johnson died, and throughout the half century they were married, he was the one who would cry when he saw his wife’s face as she opened a meaningful gift.
The sensitivity is just one of the apparent gaps between the persona one would expect and the one that Johnson exhibited. Despite all the reverence as a football innovator, he was not the eccentric often associated with genius.
"Going on a sight-seeing trip in Europe really wasn’t his cup of tea,” Vicky Johnson said. “He loved coaching. He loved playing golf. He loved his family. He had very simple pleasures.”
* * *
The Eagles have done plenty to honor a man who did so much to make them into one of the most successful NFL franchises of the last decade. They wore a black “JJ” sticker on the back of their helmets all season. They had press conferences.
On July 29, the day following Johnson’s death, there were several. Head coach Andy Reid spoke. So did team owner Jeffrey Lurie. And so did Johnson’s replacement, 35-year-old Sean McDermott.
There were several instances when in the middle of a reporter’s question, McDermott would flash a smile to show a tiny bit of victory for memories and moments in times where sorrow usually wins out. He spoke of the group of coaches who Johnson had influenced, and how they had been speaking to each other throughout the day to help each other through the news. He said they were brothers, and it wasn’t because Jim Johnson was a genius or an innovator.
It was because Jim Johnson always gave it to them straight, McDermott said. The sensitivity that made him the father and the husband who he was didn’t keep him from being the most demanding of people to work for. It was always genuine, even if it was harsh. But Johnson always had their best interests in mind. And they understood that.
“That tough love, that’s all a part of it,” McDermott said. “That’s what you want in a leader.”
McDermott acknowledged that Johnson shaped the game of football over the last quarter century, but he also said that he shaped every man around him as well. When asked what one lesson he took from his mentor, he didn’t hesitate.
“You go home at night and you hug your wife and you hug your kids,” McDermott said.
Not too complicated a lesson, even from a genius.