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.
"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."
Johnson recalls after the 1980 "Miracle Bowl" victory, "we got so many phone calls and letters with people's experiences watching that game. One guy hurt his head jumping on his bed and he hit the ceiling."
Some of the mail and phone calls weren't pleasant.
"When we didn't do well, we used to get nasty letters and phone calls," she said. "One lady up on campus called and made me cry after we lost to UTEP (in 1985). Now they just vent their frustrations on the Internet. That has really helped."
Of course, Johnson treasures her relationship with Edwards and his wife, Patti. When LaVell and Patti were serving an LDS mission in New York, she visited them. Sometimes she uses their condo in St. George.
"He's family. When we talk, it's like he's talking to his daughter. We've been so close," she said. "He still brings in his talks for me to type. I told him he's going to have to call ahead."
As Johnson steps into retirement, Doman said she will always be part of BYU football.
"Shirley is such a strong link to the tradition of this place and to our alumni and former coaches, families and parents. She has such a wealth of knowledge and background of this place," he said.
"She's truly devoted. She's as dedicated and loyal to BYU football as anybody in the world. She deserves as much recognition as any coach that's been here or any player that's been here. She's done phenomenal. We love her and appreciate her. We hope that she finds great joy in her retirement. We hope she knows that she's forever a member of our football program."
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