Drained by the chemotherapy treatments he received for Hodgkin’s disease in the fall of 1993, Ellis Johnson would turn the Alabama linebackers over a couple of days a week to a young graduate assistant named Lorenzo Ward.
Nearly 16 years later, Johnson and Ward are teaming up in another coaching arrangement.
Ward, Arkansas’ secondary coach in 2008, accepted an offer to join South Carolina’s staff and will take Johnson’s defensive coordinator’s title, USC announced Monday.
Johnson will continue to run the defense, but conceded the title to help Ward land the multiyear deal he coveted. All four USC assistants with multiyear contracts are coordinators, including two new hires — Ward and offensive line coach/running game coordinator Eric Wolford.
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The 41-year-old Ward, who made $190,000 in the first year of his two-year deal at Arkansas, also had a job offer from new Auburn coach Gene Chizik. But Ward said the opportunity to reconnect with Johnson and get closer to his goal of becoming a head coach led him to the Gamecocks.
Terms of Ward’s three-year deal were not disclosed. He does not owe a buyout to Arkansas, where he worked with Johnson for two weeks last winter before Johnson left for Columbia.
Johnson, who will be the assistant head coach for defense, insisted that Ward’s title is more than a token gesture.
“My style when I coordinate, I lean heavily on the guy out back,” Johnson said. “And I felt strong enough about him that I wanted him to have that title.”
The plan is for Ward, an Alabama defensive back from 1986-89, to coach safeties and Shane Beamer to remain with the cornerbacks. But Johnson said he might give Ward the entire secondary and move Beamer to linebackers, allowing Johnson to work with the spurs and give him a better view of the overall defense.
Either way, Ward anticipates no problems in the defensive staff room.
“I think coach Johnson and I know each other well enough that our minds will come together, and we’ll always figure out what’s the best way to do something,” Ward said. “He’s the experienced guy, and he has the responsibility to be in charge of the defense.”
Ward, a native of Greensboro, Ala., said he and Johnson became close the year Johnson battled cancer.
“That was a tough time for coach Johnson. We spent like every second of the day, other than when he was at home sleeping, together,” Ward said. “It was a real bonding situation.”
Both left Alabama the following year — Johnson to Clemson and Ward to Chattanooga, where he was defensive coordinator during his final two seasons. Ward was the secondary coach at Virginia Tech from 1999-2005, and spent 2006 with the Oakland Raiders before Art Shell was fired after one season.
“Lorenzo Ward has been part of some outstanding college defenses,” USC coach Steve Spurrier said in a release. “If you look at the resume and coaching achievements of our staff, this is the most impressive staff I’ve been able to put together.”
Besides Wolford and Ward, Spurrier hired Middle Tennessee offensive coordinator G.A. Mangus as quarterbacks coach, and brought in Harvard’s Craig Fitzgerald as the strength and conditioning coach.
Johnson said Ward’s Virginia Tech experience would be beneficial because the Gamecocks’ 4-2-5 scheme is similar to what the Hokies run. Johnson also likes the way Ward interacts with players.
“I am really tickled to death. There’s a bunch of things flying around in this conference right now, and the market’s getting pretty steep,” Johnson said. “Lorenzo’s a perfect fit. He has a very strong personality, and I think he’ll be great with the kids.”
Ward said he would leave Fayetteville, Ark., with Razorbacks coach Bobby Petrino’s blessings and two houses to sell — one in Arkansas and another in Atlanta, where he lived in 2007 when he was out of coaching but still getting paid by the Raiders.
“That made the situation a little tougher because I’m not looking to have three mortgages,” Ward said. “Sometimes you have to make sacrifices in life to get where you want to go.”
Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.
USC's assistant coaches
Assignments for coach Steve Spurrier's assistants.
G.A. Mangus ---- Quarterbacks
Robert Gillespie ---- Running backs
Steve Spurrier Jr. ---- Wide receivers
Eric Wolford ---- Offensive line
Ray Rychleski ---- Tight ends and special teams coordinator
Ellis Johnson ---- Assistant head coach and linebackers
Lorenzo Ward ---- Defensive coordinator and safeties
Shane Beamer ---- Cornerbacks and recruiting coordinator
Brad Lawing ---- Defensive line