“He was kind of gruff on the outside, but you knew he really cared about you on the inside,” Deal, a member of the IU athletics staff, said. “He would kind of give you a little wry smile underneath his moustache.”
Johnson had IU ties. He was the linebacker coach under Lee Corso from 1973-76. After that, he went to Notre Dame and led them to a national championship in 1977.
Deal, a center on IU’s football squad during Johnson’s time at IU, knew him well, despite the fact that he coached players on the other side of the ball. As Deal said, “you’re close with all of the assistant coaches you play for.”
Deal worked closely with the players Johnson coached. As a center defending the 4-3 defense IU ran at the time, he had to. And Johnson was never quiet about letting players know when they put up a good block against his linebacking corps.
“If you did something good against the linebackers, he appreciated that as a coach,” Deal said. “Instead of screaming at his guys and being mad at them, he would compliment me on my play. He would take the time to compliment someone in another position if they did a good job.”
Deal went on to coach at Wabash College after his time at IU. When he would come to recruit in South Bend, he would visit with Johnson, who was still coaching at Notre Dame at the time.
“He was the best friend in the world to have ... Just like all of the staff was at that time,” Deal said. “That whole staff was like that.”
Deal and Johnson remained close as Johnson made the transition to professional football coaching. At the NFL combines every year in Indianapolis, they would go out nearly every night after workouts and catch up with each other.
“It was always, ‘Hey, how’s your family?’” Deal said. “He just was such a warm guy. That part of it was really neat. It was just a good relationship.”
Johnson was the defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles until a few days before his death, and, under him, the Eagles were ranked second in the league in sacks from 2000-08. He manufactured 26 Pro Bowl players and helped lead the Eagles to seven playoff contentions during his 10-year tenure.
In 2001, he was diagnosed with melanoma, a type of skin cancer. Then, in January, he announced a tumor was the cause of back pain that kept him off the field during two playoff games in the 2001-02 season.
Deal spoke with some of the other coaches who had been in contact with him, and they said he was fighting the cancer and doing well.
“That’s why this was kind of a shock,” Deal said. “He was planning on coming back.”
Still, there were signs that all was not well. Deal began to suspect there was a complication when the Eagles announced on July 24 that Scott McDermott, former coach of the Eagles’ secondary, would take over Johnson’s position.
“You knew something was wrong then,” Deal said. “That wouldn’t be coach Johnson. If he was healthy enough, he was going to be out there, for sure.”
As Deal suspected, all was not well. Just days after the decision was made, Johnson passed away.
Deal, unlike many, will not remember Johnson most for his time in the NFL.
Still, he will remember him as a coach.
“It’s a sad day for, obviously, the NFL, and it’s a sad day for IU because he was one of IU’s great assistant coaches,” Deal said. “No doubt about it.”
For more information, read Monday's IDS.
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