BYU football program losing Shirley Johnson, 'anchor' of its office

Published: Tuesday, June 19 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

Shirley Johnson, right, will retire in August after working as the secretary for BYU's football office for the past 32 years. She worked for three head coaches and witnessed the Y.'s first bowl win.

Mark A.Philbrick/Byu, Mark A.Philbrick/BYU

PROVO — Amid the BYU football program's many ups and downs over the past three-plus decades, there's been one constant.

Without scoring a touchdown, or calling a play, Shirley Johnson has put her imprint on the Cougars.

Johnson was hired in 1980 as the football office secretary after helping then-offensive coordinator Norm Chow work on his doctoral thesis in the educational psychology department on campus. When there was an opening in the football office, Chow suggested that coach LaVell Edwards hire Johnson.

"I was scared to come because I was used to working with doctorate and masters students," she recalled. "With football, it was a real change."

One of Johnson's many assignments in those days was to hand-write diagrams of plays for the playbook. Now, there's a computer program for that.

"She had her hands in 12 different parts of the football program," said BYU offensive coordinator Brandon Doman, who is also a former Cougar player.

In August, after 32 years on the job, Johnson is retiring.

Johnson has worked for three head coaches. She saw the Cougars win their first bowl game, the 1980 "Miracle Bowl," her first year on the job ("I always take the credit for the bowl win," she said with a smile). She saw the Cougars claim an improbable national championship. She saw Ty Detmer win the Heisman Trophy.

Johnson had a front row, up-close-and-personal view of those memorable events. While most of those outside the program didn't know her name, those inside the program knew her vital role in the day-to-day operations.

"Her contributions have been innumerable, to both the football program and the entire university," said Edwards, who retired in 2000. "She's been an anchor for the office and the department for years. She's so capable and so good with the players. She knows everything about them. She's been a great resource for me."

Johnson also experienced the program's move from the antiquated, cramped football offices at the Smith Fieldhouse into the state-of-the-art Student Athlete Building in 2003.

What she'll miss most is the people, including coaches, fans, and players — whom she calls "her boys." Hundreds of players have gone through the program since 1980.

"They started out as brothers or sons," Johnson said. "Now we're getting up to grandsons."

The players she is closest to are those that joined the Cougars at about the same time she did. One of those freshmen in 1980 was Steve Young, an unheralded kid from Connecticut who finished his career as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"We kind of grew up together in the program," Johnson said of Young and others from that class.

Johnson's bond with Young continued even after he left Provo as an All-America quarterback to play in the NFL.

"With Steve, I helped him with his fan mail, even when he was with the (San Francisco) 49ers," she recalled. "I tried to do his calendar."

As one of America's most eligible bachelors at the time, Young received countless items from legions of female admirers. Those items were mailed to BYU's football offices and ended up on Johnson's desk.

"We got pictures, panties," Johnson said. "Some parents sent these glamour shots, trying to get him hooked up with their daughters. It was weird."

When Young was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, Johnson was invited to the ceremonies. "I got to meet some amazing people there," she said. "Just being in the room was amazing."

After Detmer won the Heisman Trophy as a junior in 1990, one of Johnson's duties was to help him with the signing of autographs.

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