Jazz's 'quiet man' Phil Johnson gets into Utah Hall of Fame
Ravell Call, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — If you ask Phil Johnson, it was a blend of great mentors, good players and blind luck that landed him a coaching career that lasted 48 years.
The Quiet Man would never admit he was a coaching prodigy, a kid on a rocket ride to the top, yet he was Weber State's head coach at age 27 — scarcely older than his players. Nor would he brag that he was a head coach in the NBA at 32, an age when many players are just hitting their stride.
Even now, after being inducted into the Utah Sports Hall of Fame on Wednesday, he contends his highest aspiration was to be a high school basketball coach.
"I thought, 'Boy, it would be nice to try to be a high school coach.' I didn't know how to do that," he says.
Johnson was the first of his family in Grace, Idaho, to attend college. There must have been insecurity deep in his bones, because it took decades of coaching in the NBA before he finally bought a summer home on Bear Lake in 1997, "just over the hill" from where he was raised. It's no coincidence he didn't go house hunting until the Jazz had made their first run to the NBA Finals.
Finally, he felt secure enough to splurge.
Johnson was inducted into the Utah hall along with Jerry Sloan, former WNBA star Natalie Williams, ex-Ute softball player Annette Ausseresses and former NFL referee Doug Toole.
"I feel lucky, and to receive this honor is just part of that luck," Johnson says.
It stands to reason Johnson and Sloan — who worked side-by-side for 23 years with the Jazz — would enter the hall together. They rode on the team bus, one row behind the other, for decades. Sat side-by-side on the bench. (Actually, Sloan stood and stormed, Johnson sat.) They hung out after the games.
As they coached, they became a complimentary combination — Sloan, swearing and straining to get at the refs; Johnson cool and composed, gently guiding Sloan to the bench. His objective was to keep Sloan from getting tossed, though it didn't always work.
"I think a lot of people think of that," he says. "It's not like it was a big thing to me. I just did it. Jerry is very enthusiastic about the game and it's interesting because I was that way when I was a head coach."
It's true. The unflappable Johnson used to be a yeller. When he was coaching the NBA's Kings, he led the league in technicals two consecutive years. But that doesn't mean he was colorful off the court. The man's as low key as a mortician, always crediting the team, the opponent and sticking to a general breakdown of the game.
While Johnson's success is undeniable, he isn't lying about having great mentors. His junior high and high school coach was Dick Motta, who remains on the top 10 all-time NBA wins list. Former Utah Stars and BYU coach Ladell Andersen named Johnson his graduate assistant at Utah State. Motta later hired Johnson as an assistant coach at Weber State.
Johnson was barely old enough to shave when he became head coach at Weber, yet established a 68-16 record and was named Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year. He still has the record for conference victories with a 39-5 record.
Motta then hired him as an assistant in Chicago, where one of the players was Sloan. In 1973, Johnson was hired to coach the Kings; the next year he was named NBA Coach of the Year. After being fired during the 1977-78 season, he returned to Chicago as an assistant to Sloan.
Johnson signed on as an assistant in Utah in 1982, where he worked until the Kings hired him again as the head coach. He stayed there three years before returning to the Jazz as Frank Layden's assistant.
When Sloan took over the Jazz in 1988, Johnson came with the deal. They stayed that way for 23 seasons.
You have to wonder why a guy would voluntarily remain an assistant coach for a quarter century, when his name arose regularly on the list of head coaching candidates.
"If you check your ego at the door and just want to coach, that's the main thing," he explains.
At least three head coaching jobs were offered to him.
"It just wasn't quite right," he continues.
Johnson left millions on the table by not taking another head coaching position. No matter, he says, he was "very well taken care of" by former owner Larry H. Miller. He doesn't say how much, but considering Sloan made $5 million a year with the Jazz, it's safe to assume Johnson did nicely.
When Sloan retired last winter, Johnson did, too, even though Miller often said the job would be Johnson's job to have. But with Motta, Andersen, Layden and Sloan in retirement, what was he to do?
The Quiet Man had run out of friends and mentors.
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