Doug Robinson: Utah Utes football: 'The Kid' Brian Johnson is at the controls of Utes' offense
When Chow left the Utes following last season to become the head coach at Hawaii, the offensive coordinator's job was vacant again. In his seven years as head coach, Whittingham has gone through four coordinators — Andy Ludwig, Dave Schramm, Schramm/Aaron Roderick (co-coordinators), and Chow — two of whom left the program to coach elsewhere.
Whittingham took his time finding Chow's replacement — nearly two months.
"This was not a knee-jerk decision," he says. "We did our homework. We researched plenty of people. We spent hundreds of hours on this. We went over and over what was going to be the best fit for us."
Whittingham was not deterred by Johnson's age or perceived inexperience. As Whittingham likes to tell the media, Johnson has always been precocious, always years ahead of his peers. "He's a special individual," says Whittingham. "He's not your run-of-the-mill 25-year-old."
Johnson grew up in Crosby, Texas, the oldest of three children. His father Stacey, a former UTEP football player, is a chemical plant operator; his mother Shonna a nurse. The kids were taught to answer "yes, ma'am" and "no-ma'am," a habit Johnson retains today and which never fails to surprise and charm recruits' parents. Shonna has emphasized education, and it seems to have paid dividends. Johnson's sister Bianca graduated from the University of Texas and is working in Austin. His younger sister Britteny just finished her freshman year at the University of Houston.
Then there's Brian.
He supposedly learned to read by age 2. After attending preschool for a couple of years until the age of 5, he tested so high that he was skipped over kindergarten and first grade and placed in second grade. He's been fast-tracked ever since. He made his first campus visit to Utah at 16 and signed a letter of intent. He not only graduated from high school at 17, he graduated a few months early for his class, which allowed him to enroll at Utah in January and participate in spring practice.
At 17, he saw action in 10 games as the backup to Alex Smith, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft the following spring. As an 18-year-old sophomore, Johnson became Utah's starting quarterback. En route to becoming the winningest quarterback in school history, with a 26-7 record, he also graduated in four years.
"When he was a freshman I remember thinking that this guy carries himself well," says Whittingham. "I was impressed by his demeanor. He seemed to be in control, composed, confident. He was and is mature beyond his years."
Johnson's entire playing career seemed to reach a perfectly timed crescendo in the Sugar Bowl, which matched No. 6 Utah and No. 4 Alabama. Johnson passed for 336 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-17 upset and was named the game's Most Outstanding Player.
After the game, Johnson was detained in the locker room by media interviews. After he finished answering questions, he walked outside and discovered that the team bus had returned to the hotel without him. It's a story that is told frequently in Ute circles, the humor and irony of it being irresistible. He began walking down the streets of New Orleans to the team hotel, his Sugar Bowl Trophy in hand and a backpack slung over a shoulder.
"Didn't you just play in the game?" a stranger asked.
Johnson finally called Whittingham, who dispatched a family member to pick him up.
"They forgot about me," Johnson says, smiling.
Not when it came to coaching jobs. The Utes had a coaching vacancy as soon as the Sugar Bowl ended, and Whittingham wanted to hire Johnson immediately. Johnson was interested, but felt compelled instead to try out for the NFL as an undrafted free agent.
"I knew when he was a player that he would make a fantastic coach," says Whittingham. "He thought like a coach. He was a student of the game. Nobody studied more film as a player than Brian. It was hours and hours. But he wanted to give the NFL a shot, which I understand. The window for coaching will still be there down the road."
Johnson's tryout with the Green Bay Packers was short-lived He was later signed by the New York Sentinels of the United Football league and released six weeks later. He immediately returned to Salt Lake City and to the Utes, although not in an official role.
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