Doug Robinson: Utah Utes football: 'The Kid' Brian Johnson is at the controls of Utes' offense
"He just hung out that season," says Whittingham. "He was in the office with us, just absorbing everything. He asked us, 'Do you mind if I continue to learn?' He wanted to be part of the program."
Says Johnson, "I loved being around the program. It was a unique experience to see it from that angle — not as a coach or player. We had an understanding (that he would coach). It was something I wanted to do. (Whittingham) has always known."
As fate would have it, another coaching vacancy opened up on the staff after the 2009 season. Whittingham met with Johnson for five hours to discuss offensive philosophy and to pick his brain. At one point they watched video of Utah's game against Cal in the Poinsettia Bowl and they role-played — Whittingham was a quarterback and Johnson the coach. This allowed Whittingham to see how the kid would teach players, lead meetings, detect nuances of the game and attack various defenses, etc.
After hiring Johnson as quarterbacks coach, Whittingham cautioned him that, given his youth — he was the same age as many of the players — he would have to be especially vigilant in maintaining the coach-player relationship.
"We had that discussion with him when I hired him," says Whittingham. "It's not a buddy-buddy thing. You've got to guard against that and separate yourself. You're the coach and they're the players. He's handled it very well. The players respect him."
Two years later, the offensive coordinator job was open again and Whittingham began his search. After considering many options, including Roderick, he became intrigued with Johnson. They met three times formally, each leading to lengthy discussions. During a recruiting trip to Louisiana, they discussed Johnson's offensive philosophy as well as his management and organizational skills and what he believed was required to make a successful coach.
A few weeks before his 25th birthday, Johnson was hired as the offensive coordinator, with an annual salary of $225,000. He is believed to be the youngest FBS offensive coordinator in the country.
"I felt extremely blessed and fortunate," says Johnson. He has not been oblivious to the media's focus on his age. "I see why people say it's a big deal," he says, "but I've been around this program for eight years in multiple roles — as a player and a coach and observer. I've seen the program from a lot of different angles."
Says Godfrey, Johnson's former teammate, "It is no doubt a bold move. I'm as anxious as anyone to see how it plays out. I expect there will be a learning curve and adjustments, but in the long run he'll do just fine. Coach Whit saw something in Brian since he first met him."
Certainly, Johnson has good rapport with the head coach. As Johnson puts it, "Whit was evaluating a lot of people. I knew he was considering me for the job, and I wasn't surprised. I have a great relationship with him. The biggest thing is he has a lot of trust in me. I've known him since I was 17, so I've been around him my entire adult life. He had a huge impact on my growth as a person. I genuinely respect and care about him."
Whittingham has seen big things ahead for Johnson for years and prepared him for it. When he hired Johnson as quarterbacks coach, he reminded him to carry himself in a certain way because he was going to advance in the coaching profession and "you never know who's around."
Johnson has remembered that advice. A couple of years ago, he was at Draper Park with his girlfriend when he asked a teenager to stop swearing. The young man responded by spewing racial taunts. Johnson seethed — clearly he could have handled this foul-mouthed punk easily — but he forced himself to walk away.
"That's exactly what Coach Whit was talking about," says Johnson. "If I was a young hot-headed 18-year-old, it would have ended differently. I've got to think about the big picture."
Godfrey, who remains close to the game through a professional training service he offers for aspiring football players, believes Johnson's promotion will pay off in many ways. "It makes sense when you think of all the things he brings to the program," he says. "He relates well to the guys because of his race and his youth. That will help in recruiting. He'll know how to teach and talk to them. And the way he sees things on the field is unbelievable. It all translates into a great OC."
Johnson, who married earlier this summer, concludes an interview by saying, "I'm obviously blessed to be in this position. I realize that every day. There's not a day that goes by that I'm not thankful for the blessings that have been given me.
"But I don't dwell on it. In this profession, nothing is guaranteed forever. I learned that from Whit. You can always get better. I'm constantly evaluating myself and trying to get better. To this point things have been good, but if you get lax in preparation or focus in any area of your life, it can all change."
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