Clash of old friends comes to Death Valley

November 25, 2008 

In the spring of 2006 when Ellis Johnson was at Mississippi State, he stayed at Clemson interim coach Dabo Swinney’s home and met with the Tigers’ defensive staff about stopping South Carolina’s offense.

Two years and a couple of moves later, Johnson will spend this week preparing the Gamecocks’ defense to stop Clemson’s offense. If Johnson is successful, it could cost Swinney, his friend and former Alabama colleague, a shot at being retained as the Tigers’ coach.

While Johnson hopes Swinney gets the job, he plans to put personal feelings aside for four hours Saturday at Death Valley.

“We’ll both just do our jobs and be professional, and we’ll worry about Sunday after Saturday’s over,” said Johnson, who is in his first year as USC’s defensive coordinator.

“I personally don’t think whether we can stop Clemson or not is going to affect whether he’s going to get that job. I think he’s being judged in a total body of work, and I don’t think any one game is going to determine the outcome of it. It shouldn’t.”

Their friendship dates to their days at Alabama, where Swinney was a backup receiver and Johnson was outside linebackers coach for Gene Stallings on the Crimson Tide’s 1992 national championship team. Swinney recalls playing on one of the special teams Johnson coached.

When Johnson returned to Tuscaloosa as Alabama’s defensive coordinator in 1997 following a three-year stint at Clemson, Swinney was the tight ends/receivers coach on Mike DuBose’s staff.

Though the two have never coached on the same side of the ball, they have a mutual respect.

“I’ve known him for a long time, got lots of stories, know his wife and kids,” Swinney said. “We’ve always kept up. We’ve always stayed in touch, even now. He’s a good friend.”

The two have talked a couple of times and exchanged several text messages since Swinney stepped in as the interim coach after Tommy Bowden resigned in October. Johnson and Swinney went through a similar situation at Alabama when DuBose was fired with several games remaining in the 2000 season.

DuBose stayed on through the end of the 3-8 season, but Johnson said uncertainty about the next coach wore on the players and staff.

“It’s a very difficult thing to get (players) to respond the right way at practice and everything else,” Johnson said. “I would think that (Alabama) experience has probably helped him with this. I think he’s done a very good job with it.”

While at Alabama, the coaches’ wives became friends, and the families have spent time together over the years. Johnson said the Swinney’s three school-age sons are in constant motion.

“We used to tease them all the time because, to put it politically correct, they were full of energy — and still are,” said Johnson, who also has three young children. “Dabo has such a great temperament and his wife is like a little angel, and those boys — they are connected to the energizer bunny.”

With Mississippi State on USC’s schedule in 2006 and ’07, Johnson swung through Clemson each spring on his way to visit family in Winnsboro, his hometown. The Clemson detour allowed Johnson to catch up with Swinney and pick the brains of the Tigers’ defensive coaches about Steve Spurrier’s offense.

“We watched some film, things like that. Just football,” Swinney said. “He’s got a lot of friends up here, so he would always come through once a year.”

Said Johnson: “It’s kind of ironic that just (two) years ago I was doing that and now I’m here at South Carolina.”

Swinney said he was not surprised when Johnson was hired at USC, where the 56-year-old has the Gamecocks’ defense ranked fourth in the SEC and 11th nationally.

“He’s got a lot of ties here, and he’s been trying to get back into this state for a long time just from a retirement standpoint,” Swinney said. “So it was a really good opportunity for him.”

Johnson is hopeful Swinney, who is 3-2 since taking over for Bowden, will have the opportunity to remove the “interim” from his title. That would pit the old friends against each other every Thanksgiving weekend and add another interesting subplot to the USC-Clemson rivalry.

“It’s been a really good friendship over the years. They’re special people and they’re really nice people, just outside of the coaching aspect,” Johnson said. “I’m pulling for him.”

Just not Saturday.

Staff writer Paul Strelow contributed to this report. Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

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