The Pryor Times


August 30, 2010

Merv Johnson: A coach and a gentleman

Merv Johnson, simply put, is one of the good guys. Honest and humble. Generous and genuine. Tried and true. He is poised and polished. Loyal and devoted.

He once was considered the best assistant coach in all of college football.

As an assistant coach at Arkansas, at Notre Dame, at Oklahoma, he helped build national championship teams.

That he never was handed the reins of his own program ranks as one of the great tragedies in college football.

In 2003, the Oklahoma chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame presented Johnson with its inaugural Integrity in Coaching Award. The honor, awarded annually to a coach best representing the highest standard of truth, honor, veracity and uprightness, now bears Johnson’s name.

He has been around the game of football for more than a half-century. Yet he doesn’t even look 50.

He is athletically trim, a picture of health. Possessor of a firm handshake, a disarming smile.

For the last 31 years, Johnson has been a part of the University of Oklahoma football family, from Barry Switzer’s assistant head coach to director of football operations to color analyst on radio broadcasts.

He drove to Tulsa the other day to speak at a friend’s business luncheon.

Merv Johnson does things like that for friends.

He is one of the most respected football men in all of Oklahoma.  

As he gave graciously of his time on his day off, Johnson talked about his favorite subject … the football Sooners.

They are less than a week from opening another season. And he is less than a week from extending an extraordinary streak of his own.

From assistant coach to the broadcast booth, Johnson has been in attendance at 380 consecutive OU football games. Every game for 31 seasons.

“I’m not sure that, with the university or even the media, there’s anyone who has seen that many consecutive games,” he says in that trademark calm yet confident voice. “No coach or administrator has been at the university that long.”

Johnson is not bragging. That would be beneath him. He is a modest man. A soft-spoken gentleman.

His resume speaks volumes if he does not.

He is a member of the Oklahoma Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He has been presented the American Football Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

As an-conference tackle at Missouri, he was the league’s Outstanding Student-Athlete of the Year.

He later worked on the staffs at Missouri, Arkansas and Notre Dame before joining the OU staff in 1979.

His years at OU, he says, have been “a lot of fun.”

“Well, 1995, ’96, ’97 and ’98 weren’t fun,” he said, remembering the lackluster  Sooners under head coaches Howard Schnellenberger and John Blake.

“But other than that … I’ve been really fortunate.”

So has the University of Oklahoma in its relationship with Merv Johnson.

Some 11 years ago, Director of Athletics Joe Castiglione suggested Johnson’s expertise and insight would be valuable in the radio booth.

“It’s the most fun I’ve ever had,” he said of his radio duties. “And I thought it might be.”

Johnson takes in about an hour of the daily Sooner practices, and reviews films of the next opponent. “But I don’t really try to learn their personnel, other than maybe a key player or two,” he said.

“I certainly don’t feel the pressure that I did when I coached,” he said.

During his talk last week in Tulsa, Johnson was at his relaxed and casual best. He is part Perry Como, part Frank Broyles. He is comfortable, witty, easy-going.

He provided, in impressive style, an in-depth look at the Sooners, position by position, individual by individual. He never grasped for words. Never forgot a player’s name. Nor a player’s hometown. His recall is absolute.

His analytical work as the partner with play-by-play voice Bob Barry is colorful and insightful. He is smooth, he is professional, he is perceptive.

He has become a Sooner icon, as recognizable and as revered as any coach not named Switzer.

"It says a lot about Merv that he is still at Oklahoma, meaning his career has spanned my years and those of four other head coaches after me. I think it shows his strength of character and how important he's been to this program," Switzer said recently.

"He always coached in a positive manner that created a sense of betterment in his players. That's the kind of person he is.”

Castiglione expanded on that evaluation.

"Merv Johnson is the epitome of class,” he said succinctly.

“He's one of the few people who come along in a lifetime that everyone loves and most importantly, respects.”

Text Only | Photo Reprints