The Man We Call 'Coach Merv'

John Rohde
By John Rohde Contributor
APRIL 05, 2017

Merv Johnson will be honored during halftime of OU's Spring Game Saturday.

Bennie, Bud, Barry and Bob all made their indelible mark as Oklahoma football head coaches, but historic contributions also have come from a man endearingly referred to as "Coach Merv."

Mervin Lewis Johnson spent more years inside the Sooners' football program than Bennie Owen, Bud Wilkinson, Barry Switzer or Bob Stoops.

After 38 years as an assistant coach (1979-97) and director of football operations (1998-2017), Johnson formally has retired from the university. "At 80 years old, I figured it'd probably be a good time to do that," Johnson said of retirement.

"At 80 years old, I figured it'd probably be a good time to do that."
-- Merv Johnson on retirement

Johnson will continue his role as the team's radio analyst during games, however. "I said, 'Merv, you may be retiring in employment terms, but we're not going to let you get away that easily. We still want you and need you around here,'" OU Athletics Director Joe Castiglione said of Johnson, who will turn 81 on May 16.

From 1958-2016, Johnson was a football staff member for 59 consecutive college seasons and 703 total games. He served under seven head coaches and those teams combined for an all-time record of 516-175-12 (.743).

Born 10 miles outside King City, Mo., Johnson went to a one-room country school before attending high school in town. "There were 38 people in my senior class and that was the biggest class they'd had in quite a while," Johnson recalled. "I was about as country as it gets, I'm telling you."

An offensive tackle, Johnson could have played at several Big Seven Conference schools. Although Kansas, Kansas State, Nebraska and Iowa State actually were closer to his northwest Missouri home, Johnson opted to play for MU coach Don Faurot, innovator of the Split-T offensive formation.

Back then, freshmen were ineligible. Johnson barely played as a sophomore, then started as a junior. As a senior, he became an academic All-Big Seven selection, was honored as the league's most outstanding student-athlete of the year and co-captained his team at the Blue-Gray All-Star game. The undersized Johnson was not drafted into the NFL and was trying to figure out what to do with his bachelor's degree in agriculture.

"My senior year, I began to realize I didn't have anything other than a degree," Johnson said. "My grades were pretty decent and I thought if I took a year or a semester of chemistry, I might be able to get into veterinary school, which I think I would have been pretty good at and I would have liked."

That changed when Frank Broyles, who replaced Faurot at Missouri and coached during Johnson's senior season, left the Tigers after one season to fulfill his dream of coaching at Arkansas. "That spring, Coach Broyles asked me about going to Arkansas, so I threw that (plan to become a vet) aside, went into coaching and couldn't ever get off the train," Johnson explained.

Johnson was hired as a "dorm coach" and the Razorbacks' roster included a player named Switzer. "Coach Broyles asked me if I wanted to come, live in a dorm and help keep Switzer out of trouble," Johnson said jokingly.

After two seasons at Arkansas, Johnson returned to Missouri to become as assistant under Dan Devine. As was the case with Johnson, Switzer's coaching career also began at the pleading of Broyles when Switzer remained at Arkansas and coincidentally replaced Johnson as dorm coach.

Johnson had two terms as an assistant at Arkansas under Broyles (117-45-5); stints at Missouri and Notre Dame under Devine (53-12-2); and had a combined record of 346-121-5 with the Sooners serving under Switzer (95-23-2), Gary Gibbs (44-23-2), Howard Schnellenberger (5-5-1), John Blake (12-22) and Stoops (190-48-0).

From the sideline to the booth, Merv Johnson has been a fixture of OU football for 59 years.

Sadly, not once did Johnson serve as a head coach.

He was offered the Missouri job in 1978, but sometime after Johnson returned to South Bend to get his affairs in order, his alma mater reversed field and named Warren Powers as coach.

"I felt like I kind of got screwed," Johnson said, which is about as close to cursing as Johnson gets. "They were talking to me when I left, asking if my wife (Cindy) would like to come back Tuesday for the announcement or whatever. Meanwhile, they changed their minds."

When Switzer offered Johnson a job as OU's assistant head coach after the 1978 season, Johnson approached Notre Dame officials to ask if he would be considered for the head coaching job when Devine retired.

Notre Dame executive vice president Father Edmund Joyce told Johnson the school would not hire an assistant as head coach because two previous assistants who were hired — Hunk Anderson in 1931 and Terry Brennan in 1954 — combined to go 48-27-2 (.636), which was deemed unacceptable.

Joyce said he would match Switzer's monetary offer, but would not consider Johnson for the Irish head coaching job. "You had to appreciate his honesty," said Johnson, who to this day holds no grudge. "Pretty much told me I could be flopping around in a couple more years, looking for a job."

Two years later, Devine retired and the Irish hired Gerry Faust from Cincinnati Moeller High School. Faust indeed was a prerequisite head coach, albeit at the prep level, and was gone after going 30-26-1 from 1981-85. Notre Dame later hired assistant coaches in Bob Davie in 1997 and Charlie Weis in 2005.

Missouri came calling again in 1985, but Johnson admitted he never forgave his alma mater for what transpired during the previous search. This time the job wound up going to Woody Widenhofer.

"He was a great teacher and we had some great offensive lines with great people," former OU defensive backs coach Bobby Proctor (1973-91) said of Johnson. "We kept wondering every year, 'When will he get a head coaching job he deserved?'"

A tad miffed their co-worker once again got overlooked, the Sooners not coincidentally beat the Tigers 51-6 in Widenhofer's first year and 77-0 in Norman the following season.

The 1986 shutout over Missouri was OU's widest victory margin since beating Kingfisher College 157-0 in 1919 and the most lopsided loss in MU history. The Sooners scored touchdowns on their first eight possessions, 11 of 13 possessions overall, had 681 yards rushing and 750 yards total. "I don't think we ever had the ball more than two or three minutes (on any drive)," Switzer recalled. "They were lined up so bad. It was a track meet."

Switzer called off the dogs early and used three different quarterbacks against the Tigers. Starter Jamelle Holieway played only four series, none in the second half. "There was no attempt at all to run up the score," said Widenhofer, who lasted just four seasons and went 12-31-1 (.284). "Barry substituted freely, and he was very apologetic afterward."

Johnson was offered head coaching jobs at less prestigious programs. But the older he got, the less sense it made to leave a powerhouse like OU for a rebuilding project somewhere else. "Oklahoma is not an easy place to leave," Johnson said. "You've got a chance to win a championship about every year. Why would a guy in his 50s want to go to a small school that hasn't won anything? You better just stay where you're at. I wasn't aggressive enough (seeking a head coaching job). Anything where I failed to get a decent head coaching job is probably my fault."

"He's like talking to Aristotle about football. You like to hear his opinion, I promise you."
-- Barry Switzer

When describing Johnson as a coach, Switzer harkens all the way back to ancient Greece.

"He's like talking to Aristotle about football," Switzer said of Johnson. "I'm not (kidding) you. When you listen to the guy, he'll teach you something. Merv is so smart. He'll right the boat and give you great advice. He was the guy anyone would run to if they had a problem. 'What do you think about this?' You like to hear his opinion, I promise you."

In response, Johnson counters with a little William Shakespeare, claiming the praise he has received for his role during the Stoops regime is much ado about nothing.

"I honestly think after the last few years, I wonder why I deserve (such praise)," Johnson proclaimed. "I really haven't been able to contribute as much as I'd like to. I try not to get in their way. I think it's worked pretty good. Coach Stoops has always really been great to me and complimentary."

Johnson has retained this same modesty his entire career. Of Johnson's many admirable traits, perhaps most impressive to his peers is his temperament.

"Merv never cussed his players," Switzer said. "He was hard on them and demanding, but he was one of those guys that the players knew, 'He loves me. He cares about me.' They played hard for him out of respect. They respected him so much, they didn't want to disappoint him. They didn't play for him out of fear. They played for him out of respect and love."

Proctor said Johnson "was not a hoot-and-holler guy like I was. He was more low-key. He really talked to players and they just loved him. He wouldn't raise hell with them. That's just the way he was."

Castiglione warned that despite Johnson' outer calm, a competitive storm rages within.

"He has had a big impact on this program," Castiglione said. "He just went about it in a very humble way, but do not underestimate his competitiveness or toughness by getting caught up in that great attribute of humility. You see that consistently calm demeanor and you mistake that for not being ultra-competitive."

Johnson said he never felt the urge for spicy language. "It's probably the way I was brought up a little bit, that sort of thing," Johnson said. "I don't think you get the best out of a guy by trying to scare him to death, or intimidate him, that sort of thing. You've got to convince him that you've got something that can help him. It never really became much of an issue. I think if you take that approach, most of the players appreciate it and they'll really try for you. Then when you do raise your voice, they know you're not very happy with what they did, or didn't do, and they try hard. If you get to where you scream and yell all the time, it gets to the point where they just don't pay attention."

When he was hired in December of 1998, Stoops said he immediately knew he would retain Johnson on staff. "How could you not?" Stoops said. "I'm very appreciative he stuck around and helped us for so many years, but particularly in those early years because he was a tie to everybody. Merv tied you to all these people who are such an important part of the history here — from coach Switzer, to (assistant coaches) Bobby Proctor, to Mike Jones, to all those guys."

The Sooners claimed their seventh national title in Stoops' second year as head coach, and although Johnson was not a position coach, he played a role in OU's return to the top of college football.

"My first year here, (Johnson helped me) navigate the entire OU process, with the administration, with how things worked, how things flowed and how to do it properly," Stoops said. "He was a great source of information. He has a feel for certain situations. He never, never criticized anybody, but you have his assessments of how he viewed things. I wanted his version. I valued his knowledge of what he was saying out there on the field. Merv felt comfortable sharing anything he saw, or felt, would be positive, and he shared it. I was interested in what he thought. So, I asked."

"Merv tied you to all these people who are such an important part of the history here."
-- Bob Stoops

For Johnson, it was a matter of speaking when asked to speak.

"That's one thing I'm not going to do," Johnson said. "I'm not going to tell them what they need to do, what they shouldn't do, or what they did last week that was foolish, or anything like that. I might tell them who's really looking good in practice, or when a play really looks like it might give the other team some problems, those kind of things. I've never felt like I've helped him (Stoops) as much as he says I have."

Perhaps no one on staff has reaped the benefits of Johnson's wisdom more than assistant athletics director for football operations Matt McMillen, who arrived with Stoops in 1999. "Matt and Coach Merv worked very closely with myself and the staff in handling certain parts of the office and the inner-workings of the office and all our personnel," Stoops said.

Like everyone else, McMillen was astounded at Johnson's wealth of knowledge, plus how much he was respected and beloved. Having never served in the operations position before, McMillen was a clean slate for Johnson.

"I peppered him with questions and watched him," McMillen said. "I had no idea what I was doing. He helped me every step of the way, learning the ropes, who to call, how to do it, this and that. He was great. He's so kind and patient with people. He never forgets how important OU football is to the people on the outside. Sometimes if you work here you take it for granted, but to other people it's so special. He's given thousands of tours (of the facilities) and done so many countless things for people that no one ever knows about. He is so giving of his time and so nice and gracious to people, it's amazing. That's probably what I learned from him more than anything is just how to treat people."

When asked who will replace Johnson, McMillen said:

"I don't know that anybody can replace him."

There's no need to ask anyone what they think of Johnson as a person. They'll gladly share their thoughts unsolicited:

Stoops: "You like him and respect him. He's a great joy to be around as a person. I really can't express all he has meant to the program."

Switzer: "Merv has never changed. Merv is Merv and always will be Merv. He's been loyal to the university and loyal to anybody who's been his friend. He is a unique individual. A great person."

Castiglione: "You'd have a hard time finding anybody anywhere that has anything less than really positive to say about Merv. We love him and I can speak to how much (OU) President and Mrs. Boren love him, too."

McMillen: "He's one of those guys who no one ever, ever has a cross word about him. He is universally loved by everybody. You don't come across those kind of guys very often. He's a unique dude. I'll tell you what, he's awesome."

Proctor: "He's a great guy and a great person. His whole family is. All the high school coaches, college coaches, any place you could coach kids, he has great respect."

Radio play-by-play man Toby Rowland: "His football knowledge obviously is off the charts, but I don't know if I've ever met a kinder, gentler soul in addition to that. As far as I'm concerned, I hope Merv is around forever. I love him as an analyst, but more than that I love the man. I don't want to think about a Saturday where I don't get to see his face. Just seeing him in the booth relaxes me and puts me in a good mood and the broadcast starts."

Johnson has never missed a game since arriving at OU, an active streak of 472 contests, a total that will continue to grow when Johnson remains alongside Rowland this season and beyond. "The great thing about that is I haven't had to buy a ticket yet," Johnson said with a chuckle.

What makes the streak particularly impressive is Johnson has worked while overcoming personal tragedies:

  • In late August 2000, his youngest daughter, Jill Foster, was killed in a car accident near Pryor at age 29. Six days later, Johnson worked the Sooners' season opener against UTEP.
  • When the Sooners played at Notre Dame in 2013, Johnson's wife, Cindy, suffered a stroke in their home. Johnson spent virtually the entire week with Cindy, their son and their daughter at the hospital and didn't want to leave to broadcast the TCU game that Saturday in Norman, but his children persuaded him to go. "I felt a little bit guilty about doing it, but they insisted," Johnson said at the time. Johnson’s wife of 53 years, Cindy was removed from life support the morning of the game and died the next day.
Johnson received the Bill Teegins Award for excellence in sports broadcasting in 2012.

After the passing of legendary OU play-by-play man Bob Barry Sr. on Oct. 30, 2011, Rowland joined Johnson in the broadcast booth and admits he has been a bit awestruck since day one.

"I thought after a while the feeling of working with an icon would kind of fade, but it really hasn't," Rowland said of partnering with Johnson. "I kind of pinch myself every time we sit next to each other. I'm like, 'That's Merv Johnson.' The amount of football knowledge that guy has far surpasses anyone I've ever known. We'll be out to dinner Friday night before a game somewhere and he'll start a story with, 'I was talking to Bud Wilkinson one day,' or 'I was telling Joe Montana one time.' I mean, who else can do that? Who else can start stories like that?"

Johnson was no stranger to radio and television, having done shows locally and in Tulsa as an assistant under Switzer, and Johnson said he looks forward to continuing his radio role. Johnson's knowledge of football is palpable on the air, sometimes eerie, when he foretells what play will transpire long before the ball is snapped.

"He instinctively can see the play before it happens," Rowland said. "First of all, I've never known anybody who can tell there are too many men on the field quicker than he can. 'Hey, there's 12 guys, 12 guys.' He can feel it. He doesn't even have to count. I think what's most valuable to our broadcast is he sees things so instinctually. I don't think there's anybody who sits in that chair as an analyst — and no offense to any of them — but there can't be anyone who has had as much as experience as he has. His ability to bring that insight to our broadcast is invaluable."

"I'm really humbled they've done all these things for me because I don't really feel like I've done anything particularly special."
-- Merv Johnson

As has been the case for more than six decades now, Johnson still plans to head to the office and watch practice. "I'll be by every day for a little while," Johnson said. "Probably come in around 10, then watch practice."

The "Welcome" mat remains intact for Johnson. "There was never a situation when we ever wanted Coach Merv to retire or move on, but we also understand life continues to happen," Stoops said of Johnson's inevitable retirement. "He knows he's still welcome. He can come and go as much as he wants and we love having him around."

The new offensive staff meeting room in new football offices at Gaylord Family — Oklahoma Memorial Stadium will be named after Johnson, who was inducted into the Oklahoma Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2002 and was the first recipient of the National Football Foundation Integrity Award in 2003 (the award was later re-named in his honor). On Friday night, a salute to Johnson will be held in the Chesapeake Energy Stadium Club, where several former players will be in attendance.

"I'm really humbled they've done all these things for me because I don't really feel like I've done anything particularly special," Johnson said. "When you get the president of the university and the athletics director and the head football coach saying some nice things about you, it makes you feel pretty good."



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