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

Published: Tuesday, June 19 2012 8:29 p.m. MDT

"People always think, 'Oh, I want this signed for my son,' as if they were the first one ever to have thought of that," Johnson says, laughing. "The Christmas after the Heisman, the old conference room at the (athletic director's) office was filled from the floor to the ceiling with stuff to sign. We just sat there and I'd hand him something and he'd sign it. It took us a whole day."

It's amazing that Detmer could throw a football after that.

Johnson hosted the pro scouts when they would come to town. "They'd start coming at 7:15 in the morning," she said. "I'd make up a list of our seniors for the scouts, and give them a parking pass. They've become good friends. Now they're all dying or retiring because I'm so old."

She wrote letters to the players serving missions, helped the coaches book their travel, and provided the players with their mail, game tickets and scholarship checks.

"She's taken care of everything you can think of, from taking care of players who are struggling, and being a surrogate mom to these guys," Doman said. "Everything that came in for the players, she distributed that to them. Many players got close to her.

"For 30 years, you couldn't get your scholarship check unless you got it from Shirley. You had to cut your hair or shave your face. If you had missed a class, she was the enforcer. Coach Edwards leaned on her for that. She had players on bended knee pleading with her to give them their check. Sometimes she wouldn't. Bless her heart, she could be the enforcer when she needed to."

In recent years, due to the miracle of direct deposit and the Internet, she hasn't dealt with the players as much as she used to.

"It's totally different. I don't have half as much interaction. The players used to come into the fieldhouse office (lobby), sit around and talk," Johnson said. "I used to learn a lot of stuff that way. They were comfortable. LaVell would visit with them, too. Some of the best conversations I ever heard was when LaVell would sit by my desk and former players would start reminiscing."

One day not long ago, she was rounding the corner into a big hallway of the football offices as the massive defensive line was coming out of a meeting.

"I just got leveled," she said. "Jordan Richardson hit me, and Loni Fangupo just picked me up. I could have had a broken whatever. I hurt my arm trying to break my fall. He took me to my desk. Every time I see Richardson, he asks, 'Are you OK still?' That was so funny."

One of Johnson's biggest accomplishments has been maintaining relationships with former players and coaches, and she has been instrumental in helping stage the annual Alumni Day. Johnson loves seeing the former players and coaches come together every year in the spring.

"It's a ball. You see all of these amazing people that you haven't seen forever. You see guys who have turned out well that weren't so good when they were here. One player that was kicked out in the late 1980s came in the other day with his mother and his son. He's married and having a productive life. I was pleased that he felt comfortable to come and say hi."

One former player, Cliff Doman, Brandon's older brother, is her dentist.

Johnson remains friends with former Cougars who are now coaching at arch-rival Utah, including head coach Kyle Whittingham, defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and passing game coordinator/receivers coach Aaron Roderick.

"I always congratulate them when things go well for them," she said. "I'm a little freer with Kalani and Aaron. I don't think we send out an invitation to the alumni thing to Kyle. But I do to the others. We have a good relationship."

Over the years, she's received mail and answered phone calls from passionate fans. In the early 1980s, she received a letter from a high school kid.

"It looked like it was written by a third-grader," she said. "We found out that he was mentally challenged and loved football. We made him an official member of the team, and sent him a jersey and a hat. Every year since then, I've sent him stuff. He's got to be 40 years old now. He still keeps in touch."

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