Thursday, July 30, 2009

Not Young Men

RIP Jim Johnson, longtime DC for the Eagles. He passed away two nights ago after a struggle with cancer. He was 68. Widely considered one of the best in the game at what he did, and as responsible as anyone for the long run of success the Eagles have had under Andy Reid.

Ravens coach Harbaugh issued a statement:

“I loved Jim Johnson. This is a sad day for so many people who were touched by this great man. Ingrid and I, the Harbaugh family, and the Ravens have Jim’s wife, Vicky, and the Johnson family in our thoughts and prayers. Jim was a tremendous teacher of football and life. He had a special ability to bring out the best in people while getting you to see the best in yourself. He saw potential and developed it. He made me believe I could coach at this level. In football, he was a pioneering and brilliant strategist, changing the way defense is played in the NFL. For me, he was a father-type mentor, and above all, a cherished friend. He belongs in the Hall of Fame. I will miss him so much.”
Harbaugh coached in Philly for 9 or 10 years, one of them as DB coach working directly under Johnson. Among the many quotes I read last offseason when Harbaugh was hired to coach the Ravens, was one where he specifically mentioned Johnson's willingness to share his football knowledge with young coaches. Said that was not always the norm with coaches; that it was part of what made Johnson special. (I don't have a link, sorry.)

Doug Farrar of Football Outsiders writes this excellent piece for the Washington Post:
“...the truly great and revolutionary NFL assistant coaches don't generally get the respect they deserve, and the ones who give decades to their profession and are still at their best now are truly gifted.
Jim Johnson was a teacher and tactician of the highest order, and it's important to take time to appreciate the lifers of the NFL. My hope is that Johnson's legacy and memory brings more visibility to all great assistant coaches - including and especially to the Hall of Fame voters. Assistant coaches are a woefully underrepresented class in Canton, and this needs to change.”
More detail there on how Johnson's Eagles defenses excelled. It's really a fine piece, go read it.

Another piece with great detail on how Johnson's defenses excelled, is this blog post by Lance Zierlein of the Houston Chronicle. Zierlein goes into detail on how the Eagles D demolished the Steelers last year, en route to a 15-6 win. He knows what he's talking about too: his dad is the Steelers OL coach.

My blogging colleague Chris posted this on a discussion board yesterday:
“Great, great coach, gone too soon.”
Certainly Johnson is gone too soon from the standpoint of his family, as well as his team.

And yet, not a young man.

You ever notice how truly old some of the men coaching in the league, are? Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh is probably the most obvious example. He's 71. Thirty-five years of NFL coaching experience. Here's a pic of LeBeau, from the week of practice leading up to last season's Super Bowl:
Doesn't he look great? He's 71.

Tom Moore of Indy, the only OC Peyton Manning has known as a pro, is 70.

Howard Mudd of Indy, their OL coach before this weird pension dust-up this offseason, is 67. He's happy.

Joe Bugel of the Redskins is 69. He also looks great.

Dante Scarnecchia of the Pats is a mere 61.Scary.

Richard Williamson of the Panthers, their WR coach for the past 14 seasons (Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad) is 68. He's on the right in the below pic (the other guys are the Panthers owner and head coach).
Jim Skipper on that same staff, at merely 60, barely merits a mention.

It's odd to think of people involved in this sport as having such great longevity, because football grinds up the players so quickly. But coaches often don't choose to retire. Some, like Tony Dungy, walk away because they have other goals they would like to meet in life. Some like Bill Cowher and Joe Gibbs bow out to spend time with their families. But many, many coaches at all levels choose to stay in the game because it's in their blood. They love it.

What I find endlessly fascinating is, how rejuvenating it is to have your career be something you love. Most of us have jobs. But those people who have a vocation, who work at what they love: those people have vigor and strength and great joy into their advanced years, 60s and 70s and maybe beyond. This is often observed among classical musicians: famous ones like Vladimir Horowitz or Lorin Maazel or Slava Rostropovich; and not-so-famous ones, like the 2nd clarinet in your city's symphony orchestra. We have TPS Reports, and they have Mozart.

"Joy" was not always obvious on Jim Johnson's face during games.

He often looked sour and curmudgeonly.

But I'm sure he took great joy in beating your ass. Jim Johnson spent his professional life doing something he loves.

Even with cancer, he was one of the very luckiest, happiest people in the world.


  1. He was all-Big 8 as a QB of all things at Missou under Dan Devine, and an ass't under the ND NChamps team under him also.

    guess he didn't like getting blitzed either.



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