By Brian Gargone
Asst. Director of Media Relations
Part of the ongoing blog series – A Tree Grows in Charleston: The Bloodline of Citadel Football
Following a successful four years as a defensive end and cadet-student-athlete at The Citadel, 1974 graduate Ellis Johnson spent the next 39 seasons on the same side of the ball where he began his playing career, becoming known as one of the most respected defensive minds in college football.
Johnson spent 16 of those years coaching defense in the Southeastern Conference, coached in four SEC Championship games, earned one national title and guided a number of athletes to successful playing careers in the National Football League.
But perhaps the defensive mastermind of Johnson would have never been sparked if it was not for the influence of his first coaching gig at The Citadel in 1975.
After graduation, Johnson kicked around the idea of leaving football to pursue a career in business, but his interest in coaching grew when Bobby Ross asked the youngster to join him on his staff as a student assistant at The Citadel; a staff that included current household names such as Frank Beamer, Ralph Friedgen and Charlie Rizzo.
“Coach Ross was so meticulous and organized as a head coach and the rest of the staff was so unbelievable that it turned my lights on and got my fire going to get into coaching as a career,” said Johnson.
After one season under Ross, Johnson received an offer for his first coaching job as defensive coordinator at Gaffney High School. He would spend the next five seasons in the Upstate, including his first head coaching stint at Spartanburg High School from 1980-81.
During his two years as head coach, Johnson earned a 16-8 record and led the Vikings to a pair of playoff appearances. His early career successes lifted the young coach back to his alma mater in 1982 when he was named the linebackers coach of the Bulldogs.
After one season with The Citadel, Johnson accepted his first collegiate head coaching gig at Gardner-Webb where he led the Runnin’ Bulldogs to a 5-6 season. However, he decided to resign after one year to take a job as defensive coordinator at Appalachian State.
He spent the next six seasons climbing the collegiate football ranks, moving from linebackers coach at East Carolina (1985-87) to defensive coordinator at Southern Miss (1988-89), before landing his first SEC gig as the outside linebackers coach at perennial power Alabama.
Johnson’s prolific mindset made an immediate impact on Crimson Tide coach Gene Stallings as the team earned a 41-9 record, including an undefeated national championship year in 1992. Alabama’s defense ranked No. 1 that season against the run and in total defense. The Tide “rolled” off a 31-game winning streak and a 34-game unbeaten streak from 1991-93. The 1991 squad went 11-1 and all four of those teams played in bowl games.
His successes as a position coach in the SEC launched Johnson to his first FBS defensive coordinator position with Clemson where he helped coach the Tigers to two bowl games in his two seasons under Tommy West.
As his reputation began to build, so did Johnson’s resume, and in 1997 he was hired as Alabama’s defensive coordinator under head coach Mike DuBose. During his four-year reunion in Tuscaloosa, Johnson helped the Tide go 10-3 in 1999 with an SEC title and a spot in the Orange Bowl. His 1999 defense was No. 2 in the nation against the rush and No. 9 in total defense.
Then, the former Cadet, football player and assistant defensive coach returned to the place where it all began. Through the black gates of The Citadel.
On December 21, 2000, Johnson was named the head coach at The Citadel and was thrilled to be able to return to his roots.
“Charleston is a wonderful place to live. I didn’t see a lot of it as a Cadet, but I saw enough to know that I wanted to come back,” said Johnson. “From the time I graduated from there I realized what that Citadel education and the experience really meant.”
Johnson credits a lot of his success on the field to his experience while attending and coaching at The Military College of South Carolina.
“I came from a very good family, two-parent home, two older brothers who went to West Point and played football and were great role models. I had another sister and a brother, who I don’t think made a B in high school, so we were a great family.
“I didn’t need The Citadel, at least I didn’t think I did, but in spite of all those things, I am what I am today because of The Citadel. A lot of my work habits, a lot of my network, a lot of my things that I do from the habits of my personality, my work habits and my organization. Things that I do, there’s a lot of structure that I got from that college education. Not just book sense but the overall educational value of it.”
Johnson was hired to rebuild a struggling Bulldog team that finished the 1999 season with a 2-9 record. He matched the team’s win total in his first season but improved in each of the next three years, culminating his Citadel coaching career with a 6-6 season in 2003.
“As a head coach at The Citadel my fondest memory was in the 2003 season when we beat Furman, Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, back-to-back-to-back. It was a sign that we had turned the corner and had things going in the right direction,” said Johnson. “That overall, instead of just one single moment, was the most memorable to me.”
Johnson resigned from The Citadel after the 2003 season to take a job as defensive coordinator under his former Crimson Tide colleague Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State. He coached the Bulldog safeties in 2004 and 2005 and the inside linebackers in 2006 and 2007. In Johnson’s final game, the MSU defense yielded just 231 yards of total offense to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl, holding the nation’s leading rusher, Kevin Smith, to nearly 70 yards below his season average.
Johnson spent the 2008-11 seasons at South Carolina where he built and guided a perennial top 15 defense before leaving the Gamecocks to become the head coach at Southern Miss.
After a winless 2012 season, Johnson was fired from his head position with the Golden Eagles but was not unemployed long as the defensive mastermind accepted a position this season back in the state of Alabama, but this time Johnson will guide Crimson Tide rival Auburn’s defensive unit. On Nov. 30, 2013, Johnson will coach his first “Iron Bowl” against Alabama.
To this day, the 61-year-old Winnsboro, S.C., native understands how important his time at The Citadel was to his illustrious career on the sidelines.
“In playing, the biggest challenge I faced is that I wasn’t very talented. The challenge of playing there is that you have a tremendous demand on your time. I can remember when we reported in as freshmen in two-a-days and between two-a-day practices we would have to go out and do military marching drills which in and of itself was not very hard, but in between two two-a-day practices, you were on your feet another hour and a half or two.
“Then, there was the academic side. The largest class I ever sat in was 23 people. I had classes as small as eight and nine guys so you got a very good education. The course curriculum was solid and the instruction was superior. To me, it was just a wonderful education, but it was very demanding. There was no rest area. The academics were tough. The military was tough and the football was tough. There were never any soft spots where you could get away. It was a demanding four or five years.”
There is no doubt The Citadel can be a challenging place to balance academics, athletics and Corps responsibilities, but Ellis Johnson proves that the hard work and determination gained while earning that coveted Citadel class ring is all worth it in the end.