Ellis Johnson, who is starting his third season in charge of USC’s defense, will make $700,000. He is among the top-paid defensive coordinators in the SEC. He talks about his salary, his past, current events, his expectations for the Gamecocks’ defense and what it’s like to be a 50ish father raising young children.
Question: You were part of a couple of championship defenses at Alabama. How close is this team and this defense to getting over the hump and making a run at Atlanta?
Answer: It’s hard to say. And if you’re asking me as a comparison, the only thing about those defenses that I remember vividly (is) we could run very well. We were very fast, even by SEC standards. And the kids, most of them had a lot of football intelligence. They really understood situation football and formations and that kind of thing. And this crowd is getting to that point. We’ve got a lot of returning players, but overall we’re still not an extremely old defense. We’ve got a lot of young players out there. I think they’re still growing as individuals and as a unit, and adapting to situations, adjusting to formations and understanding situation football. I’m not sure how football intelligent we are at this point.The other thing I’m a little concerned about at this stage is I don’t know that our leaders have popped up, (or) that we’ve really jelled as a unit and we know who those leaders are.
Q: Did you ever think when you were starting out as a high school coach that you’d be making this much money coaching football?
A: Never. I can remember my first job at Gaffney High School — actually, my first job was at Dent Junior High. But my first coaching job in high school was at Gaffney, and (the salary) was either $13,500 or $11,500. I think it was $13,500.
Q: Did that include teaching?
A: Oh, yeah. I remember Bobby Carlton was my boss, one of the best head coaches I ever worked for. And I think he was making 30 (thousand). And I remember thinking, if I could just ever make $30,000 coaching high school football, I’d be just as happy as I could be. I didn’t know at that time if I wanted to coach college, high school, pro ball — I just wanted to coach. The longer I moved through the high school ranks, I knew that if I didn’t ever go into college coaching and try it, I was always going to regret it. And I got into it and moved five times in five years. That was a bumpy ride, but I enjoyed it. I thought about going back to the high school ranks a few times but never did.
It’s really been more of a path that I followed rather than a plan. I always wanted to do certain things. I wanted to be a head coach. I wanted to coach in college. I wanted to coach major college. I always wanted to coach pro ball just out of curiosity. Never have. I don’t really have that itch anymore as much. To get back to your question, when I first started working, I really didn’t pay any attention to how much I was making and really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to coach.
Q: On that path you described, you had the opportunity to be the head coach at The Citadel. Have you ever had any second thoughts about having given up a head coaching job?
A: No. They were professional and personal (reasons). On the personal side of it, I almost doubled my salary (by taking the defensive coordinator post at Mississippi State). And it was something that would have not been reasonable for me not to consider. It wouldn’t have been a terrible move to stay at all. On the professional side, I had been in the Southeastern Conference. And 15, 20 years down the road, I thought professionally it might be the best move. But no question about it, there were things I enjoyed about being a head coach. I had a wonderful staff. It’s a great institution. It’s a tough job because of the military (aspect) and the recruiting. But they care about their athletics down there and are very supportive both financially and (with) attendance. And it’s a fun job if you understand the environment. And I miss it; I really do.
Q: Do you feel you’ve scratched that head-coaching itch?
A: I’d jump at it in a heartbeat if it happened. But it’s not one of those things — it’s sort of like back when I first started coaching. I’ve got a lot of curiosities, a lot of things I enjoy doing. But I’m enjoying what I am doing. To get to coach and do what you want to do for a living, and end up being able to come back to a tremendous university, a school in the SEC, work with coach Spurrier, and all the things that come (with) this job, and be 20 minutes from where I grew up, where my children can enjoy their family and my wife’s back in her hometown. To think about doing anything else right now — if it pops up, I’d have to consider it — but I don’t know what else I would enjoy more than this.
Q: Having said that, what selling points did Tennessee coach Derek Dooley try to make when he contacted you last winter about the Vols’ defensive coordinator position?
A: It goes back to what I said when I left The Citadel. It was kind of like ripping myself apart from something I was really attached to — being the head coach at your alma mater. But I was doubling my salary. And at that time that phone call was made, it was the same situation. I don’t know, how with three small children, I could not logically consider that. It was just a no-brainer.
Q: Do you know Derek?
A: I don’t know him that well but have tremendous respect for him. The way he handled that situation was total class. I have two good friends on that staff. The contact came from one of them that expressed an interest, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t think I have any interest.’ … I appreciate the way (Dooley) handled it. He was very factual. He wanted to make sureI understood more than the fact that he just wanted to offer a job. He wanted me to know how he wanted to run a program, what his philosophy was. And I appreciated that. And I’m going to be very surprised if he’s not very successful.
Q: You’re among a group of coaches that’s been at South Carolina and Clemson. What are the biggest differences you see between the two programs, the schools and their fan bases?
A: My father went to Clemson. My wife graduated from Clemson. I met her at Clemson. … They’re two different environments. A young man wants to go to college in a quieter,small-town college environment, or does he want to look at a larger town with more activity? The climate’s the same. Two different conferences. More and more, we’re recruiting kidsthat are first-generation college. They don’t grow up in a family where (the parents) went to a certain school. So I think recruiting now is a little bit more about what these kids arelooking for as far as where they’re comfortable.
Q: Your interest in current events has been well documented. Why is that important to you?
A: You can turn on a sports-talk show and listen to one of those guys for two hours and, frankly, what they’re talking about and what they influence — they can’t do one thing about my life. I know some of the talking heads on some of the (news) talk shows are full of hot air, too. But sometimes those people are talking about things that do affect your life. So if I cut on a talk show and somebody wants to talk about whether LeBron James is going to play for the Heat or the Fire or the Spark, why do I care? That does not have one thing to do with my life. But if I cut on the radio and some guy wants to talk about raising taxes again, then my antennas go up. … I would rather listen to some of that stuff than I would some of the hype that we have in our profession.
I think there are a tremendous number of people making money off of athletics who are not involved in athletics. It’s phenomenal. And my wife’s one of them. (Caroline Johnsonowns a USC apparel shop called Miss Cocky.) It’s amazing the things people are selling. And some of it is selling talk. They just talk about what we do. It’s like Hollywood or something. It’s kind of crazy, from making $13,000 a year at Gaffney High School to being in a fishbowl now. Sometimes it amuses me that people really want to know what I do. I find it pretty unimportant at times, other than the kids I coach.
Q: What’s the last book you read?
A: “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” I’m not a big reader. I met Pat Conroy when I was head coach at The Citadel. He came walking in the weight room one day and we chatted. My sister was an English and French major here at the University of South Carolina. She taught English and French in high school for 30 years. She thinks Pat Conroy is the most readable writer she’s ever read, and she reads tons. So I met him and we had a chat about The Citadel and these different things. And I said, ‘Pat, will you autograph a book for my sister?’ I said, ‘She’ll kill me if she knows I met you and don’t get this done.’ And he said, ‘Well, yeah, if you’ve got one here I’d be glad to sign it.’ And I said, ‘Nah, I was hoping you had one. I’ve never read any of your books.’ (Laughs) And I said, ‘I apologize. I’m embarrassed to tell you that, but I’ve never read any of your books.’ And you know how he is. He said, ‘Hell, they weren’t any good anyhow.’ I forgot what I had him sign, but I didn’t have one of his books.
Q: As a guy in your 50s, what’s the biggest challenge of raising young kids?
A: That’s a good question. I’ve really not found it to be that hard. I was not a very patient person as a young man and probably was not as well suited to be a parent as I am now. I’ve got a lot more patience. I’ve got a lot more enjoyment with kids than I had then. I guess I was in such a hurry, so focused on things like profession and all that early on that having a family was something I put off for a long time. And I guess maybe subconsciously it was something I didn’t have a need for, or realized I was not going to adequately provide the time they needed. And now I do.
For example, when I was in my 20s, we’re sitting around and all of a sudden we get through at work, golf might be the first thing that popped in my head — ‘Let’s go play some golf.’ We’d play 36 holes. Now, it’s not in the back of my mind. And when I have a little spare time, I like to go home and spend time around them. I don’t know if I would have been that way if I was 25, 30 years old. So I think I’m doing a good job. But boy, this is time-consuming. There are a lot of things about my job that the kids can’t share. They can be a part of, but I think sometimes we kid ourselves (thinking) that just because they come over and watch practice or get to go to a big ballgame that I’m spending quality time with them. So I try to be more conscious of that. When I do have dead time, I really, hopefully, am spending a lot of it around the house.
Q: Is there some advice you received from a coaching mentor, or a truism that sums up your defensive philosophy?
A: I believe in taking a scheme and making it work for players, instead of taking players and fitting them into a scheme. I just believe that in whatever you’re doing, if you’re not getting the fastest players on the field and your best playmakers on the field and putting them in a system where the kids can make plays, I think you’re on the wrong track. And I’ve seen that done before. I’ve seen people that really know the heck out of football — they know how to teach every step fundamentally, technique. But they’ve got kids that can’t do it physically, and they’re really missing the boat.