Former ND assistant Johnson dies of cancer

Published 10:38 am Wednesday, July 29, 2009

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Jim Johnson, secondary coach of the University of Notre Dame’s 1977 national championship football team, died yesterday in Philadelphia of cancer. He was 68.

Johnson most recently had served the last 10 seasons as defensive coordinator of the NFL Philadelphia Eagles.

Johnson, who played for coach Dan Devine as an all-Big Eight quarterback and defensive back at the University of Missouri from 1959-62, was reunited with Devine at Notre Dame beginning in 1977.

Devine hired Johnson as defensive backfield coach beginning with that ’77 season that turned into a national title year – and Johnson coached the secondary for all seven seasons he spent in South Bend through the 1983 campaign. Under head coach Gerry Faust, Johnson served as defensive coordinator from 1981-83 and added the title assistant head coach in 1983.

Among the secondary all-stars he tutored with the Irish were All-Americans Luther Bradley, Ted Burgmeier, Dave Duerson and John Krimm. As defensive coordinator, Johnson also worked closely with all-star linebackers Bob Crable and Mark Zavagnin.

Johnson’s seven seasons at Notre Dame produced a combined 54-25-2 record for the Irish, including the consensus national title in ’77 and final AP rankings of #7 in 1978 and #9 in 1980. Johnson participated with Notre Dame teams that won the Cotton Bowl following the ’77 and ’78 campaigns, played in the Sugar Bowl following the ’80 season and also won the Liberty Bowl in ’83 in his final year in South Bend.

A 1963 Missouri graduate, Johnson was originally from Maywood, Ill.

His more than 40 seasons of coaching also included two seasons as head coach at Missouri Southern in 1967-68, four years as defensive coordinator at Drake in 1969-72, four seasons as linebacker coach under Lee Corso at Indiana in 1973-76 before coming to Notre Dame, a year as defensive coordinator at Oklahoma of the USFL in 1984, a year in that same capacity with Jacksonville of the USFL in 1985, eight years with the St. Louis and Arizona Cardinals as defensive line and secondary coach in 1986-93, four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts as linebacker coach and defensive coordinator in 1994-97 — and a year as linebacker coach with the Seattle Seahawks in 1998.

Johnson joined the Eagles’ staff in 1999 and became one of the most well-regarded defensive coaches in the NFL. He spent 22 seasons overall as an NFL assistant coach.

Among the assistants he coached with at Notre Dame were longtime Irish staff members Brian Boulac, Joe Yonto and George Kelly.