64 Reunion: Jimmy Johnson

Jimmy Johnson figured talent was there for 1964 champs, but smarts gave the Hogs the edge in 11-0 season. This is part of a series leading up to the '64 Reunion for the Alabama weekend.

There is some debate as to the quality of the talent of the Arkansas team which won the 1964 National Championship. Some among the squad like to talk about the way they over achieved.

“We were not the most talented team in our own conference,” said Ken Hatfield, the All-America punt returner. “There were several others with better players, especially Texas.”

Jimmy Johnson, the intense middle guard of the defense, said it wasn’t close as far as the comparison to Texas.

“They were the kingpins of our conference and had the best players,” Johnson said. “But I do think we maximized our abilities and played smart.”

Jim Lindsey added his description of the 11-0 Hogs, “Not the most talented team, but smart and we played as hard as you could possibly play on every snap. We’d fight you and we had a very intelligent team that understood football, every man.”

And, so now we have the common denominator, an uncommon amount of IQ for the crowning moment in Arkansas football history, intelligence.

Johnson was reached by phone at his home in Islamarada, Fla., a sport fishing community in the Florida Keys. He took that topic and ran with it because it was one of the keys to his coaching success.

Johnson was an undersized nose tackle, or termed middle guard in those days. He was signed as a 5-11, 195-pound offensive linemen/linebacker, but eventually moved down to play in the heart of the great Arkansas defense that pitched five shutouts to end the ‘64 regular season.

Intensity was his trademark, but intelligence was what his teammates always knew was his best weapon.

“Genius, pure genius,” Lindsey said of Johnson. “We all knew it. He was a psychology major and he was smart in everything he did. He could out think – and out quick – the players in front of him.”

Johnson admitted he knew quickly when he was over matched, like in the Cotton Bowl when the Nebraska center outweighed him by 50 pounds.

“He rolled me up the first play,” Johnson said. “I didn’t take him on the rest of the day. I went around his blocks after that and had one of my best games.

“Nebraska was much bigger than us, but we were so wound up it didn’t matter. At the end of the day, we were upset that we didn’t shut them out, too.”

Johnson doesn’t play down the IQ factor.

“When they recruited me, yes, I was undersized, but I could run and I was smart,” Johnson said. “I think our whole team was like that.

“I give credit to Frank Broyles. His staff was all very smart, every one of them. And, they went on the road and found smart players.”

It’s interesting that the Texas-born coach who found Johnson at Port Arthur, Texas where he was district linemen of the year was Bret Bielema’s mentor, former Iowa head coach Hayden Fry, a one-year assistant for Broyles in 1961.

“Hayden Fry, Jim Mackenzie and Doug Dickey came to my home to offer me a scholarship,” Johnson said. “Bret and I had a visit in my home this summer – he came fishing with me and we had three hours sitting here with our wives talking. He played for Coach Fry and that’s who signed me.”

So there is a common bond, and the IQ factor and limiting mistakes with top mental preparation is something Johnson said Bielema pointed to as consistent in their backgrounds.

“I think our ‘64 team was full of intelligent people,” he said. “Look at how many of them became successful after college football. All of them. It wasn’t an accident. Frank’s assistants found those qualities and recruited to them.”

Johnson said he did the same thing as a college coach on the way to winning a national championship at Miami, then drafted IQ as he built a Super Bowl champ with the Dallas Cowboys.

“My first draft, the first four players we took, all of them were academic All-Americas,” Johnson said. “It was Troy Aikman, Darryl Johnston, Mark Stepnoski and Steve Wisniewski.”

Johnson said the top minds in sports come to his Florida Keys home annually to pick his brain about coaching. Recently, he’s entertained New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.

“They all have a philosophy in their organizations of drafting or recruiting smart people,” Johnson said. “I think it’s critical.

“In all my years of coaching, the type of individual I recruited was important,” he said. “Our 64 team was not the biggest or the most talented and I had many players that fit that mold that we won with throughout my coaching career.

“Yes, we had talent, too. But you better have that IQ factor, too. That’s what stands out to me in all my years of coaching. Intelligent people figure out how to become successful. I know Belichick believes that.”

Johnson chuckled a little as he detailed one line that he used in staff meetings as he sent his coaches on the road to recruit.

“I told them to find smart players,” he said. “And, I bet I’ve told them this a hundred times, the next time I take a dumb player, hit me in the head with a hammer.

“Our ‘64 team did not make mistakes. Coach Broyles hired smart coaches.”

Johnson named the ‘64 staff without pause. He said Jim Mackenzie, Doug Dickey, Bill Pace, Merv Johnson, John Majors, Wilson Matthews, Barry Switzer, Steed White, Jack Davis and Lon Farrell were all brilliant minds.

Butch Davis, another Arkansas grad, got his first college job under Johnson in 1979 at Oklahoma State, quickly was elevated to recruiting coordinator. He spent over 20 years with Johnson, often running the recruiting operation.

“We had to take some marginal kids when we first got to Oklahoma State,” Davis said. “And, some of them were not the smartest. There were a couple of early incidents and we figured out to get better, we had to start signing players that had intelligence.

“We got some like Leslie O’Neal that had it all, and that solidified our teams. Jimmy did emphasize that we had to get smart players, like Leslie.

“Jimmy hated losing. He still is as tough a competitor in anything he does as anyone I know. But he intensely hated losing because of dumb mistakes. Every single year I coached with him, he got more stringent in the way he identified intelligence in our recruiting.

“Our years with Miami, we had smart players. Some of them, you identified as street smart, like a Michael Irvin. Guys like Bernie Kosar were brilliant. That was his barking order to our scouts with the Cowboys, find smart players.”

They weren’t all brilliant. You wouldn’t put Leon Lett up for any academic awards.

“But Leon had good character,” Davis said. “Maybe not all of them had book smarts, but they had street smarts and there might be room for one or two that didn’t fit in your definition of high IQ, but they would have exceptional ability. The culture of the locker room was great IQ. Most of your 85 scholarships when I was recruiting coordinator for Jimmy there was a lot of intelligence.”

The other constant was the Arkansas background in what Johnson did.

“That was apparent whether Jimmy was coaching at Pitt, Oklahoma State, Arkansas and in pro football, that he’d play like his Arkansas defense under Coach Mackenzie. He wanted faster, quicker and more agile players on the defensive line than what he was playing against.

“Our Arkansas teams were never as big as Texas or Texas A&M or that Nebraska team in the Cotton Bowl. As coaches under Jimmy, we all heard those stories. Even with the Cowboys, we were faster and quicker than the teams we played.

“Speed wins at both levels, college and NFL. Jimmy believed that because that’s how he played and he knew it worked.”

Davis said he saw Johnson follow the Broyles pattern in hiring coaches.

“Jimmy had his say in everything we did, but he was like Frank in that he hired coaches to let them coach,” Davis said. “He hired smart coaches and then encouraged them to be head coaches. He had good ones. I think there are 16 or 17 who worked for Jimmy who went on to become head coaches in college or NFL.

“Jimmy was never afraid to hire great assistants, just like Frank. He wanted the smartest men around him and he did that.”

But they weren’t smarter than Johnson.

“I think if you put Jimmy in a box as just a football coach, you missed the boat on what Jimmy had,” Davis said. “He is extremely smart. And he does have an infatuation with wanting to be around smart people. It’s that psychology degree coming out in him. He wants to see what is there.”

And, there is the fighter in Johnson. Lindsey called him the ultimate fighter. He said he saw it early in his days at Arkansas in the old Mackenzie “Fight” drill. Few could handle Johnson. It was a dirty, nasty drill and Johnson loved it.

“Every aspect of Jimmy’s life, he’s been a fighter,” Davis said. “He’d fight you in golf, really compete. If it’s fishing, he’s going to figure out how to catch more. If it’s black jack, he’s going to figure it out and compete. He’s all in, in everything he does.

“We played noon basketball at Oklahoma State, all of the coaches. We didn’t let Houston Nutt play because he was a basketball player. So Houston would tape the games and provide commentary. It was pretty good. We’d go back to meetings and watch it.

“But you had to watch out for Jimmy. It was four-on-four and he’d take you out. He wasn’t as tall as the rest of us, but he generally won. His teams came out on top more times than not. He’d back you in on the post, he’d take you out if you were going in for a layup. He just didn’t want to lose.”

Johnson recalls the “Fight” drill at Arkansas.

“That was Coach Mackenzie’s way of identifying competitive spirit,” he said. “He just wanted to find out what you had. I don’t think it made you better. It just made it easier for the coaches to figure out who would compete.

“What it was, they’d call two names and you’d go against each other for three minutes. Whistle to whistle. Anything went. You could throw ‘em on the ground, do anything.”

Does he remember his first time to be called up for a “Fight” drill?

“Do I ever,” Johnson said. “I was a freshman, sixth team strong guard. Remember, they took about 60 freshmen in those days. We had a huge team with no real limits.

“Jim Mackenzie called me and Buddy Tackett. Now, Buddy was a muscle guy, a body building star. He was Mr. Arkansas and he had muscles on top of muscles. He was older. I knew I was about to get killed.

“Buddy grabbed me at the start and whispered in my helmet hole, ‘Hey, don’t get carried away here, it doesn’t have to be all out.’ He was absolutely the right guy to draw. He was a year or two older and we just got threw the three minutes.”

Most think it was the only time Johnson didn’t get carried away with what he put into the drill.

“You can’t probably do that now,” Johnson said. “You’d get complaints. But all coaches do a one-on-one drill of some type, bull in the ring or something. You want to ID the spirit in your players.”

Davis still spends time with Johnson.

“I coached with him and then after that, our families have vacationed together,” he said. “You couldn’t be around a more awesome person. He made everything interesting.

“And, he loves life. He loves fishing. I was down at his place at Islamarada not too long ago. He had in Belichick and Gene Hackman. He wanted to take us out. He just is not scared of anything and the sea was so rough. You’ve seen that movie The Perfect Storm? It was that. And Jimmy wanted to take his boat out in that. I was with the other two guys, let’s just stay on the back porch and talk football.

“It was a great day. Just think about spending an afternoon with those three men. Great conversation.”

But it has always been like that, Davis insists.

“We had great staff chemistry,” Davis said. “He always got it right. He remains friends with almost every coach who worked for him the last 30 years, players, too. It’s a big family.

“He was respectful, too. Once you earned his trust, he never meddled in what you did as a coach. If it went wrong in a game, he took the blame, said it was his call. He created a great culture.

“On game day, he spent most of his time with special teams. He let the coordinators call the plays. But he had a great feel for tempo. Defensively, he might recognize an advantage we had with a package and say, ‘Dial up the heat, we got them here.’ Or, on offense, he might recognize we could pound someone and he’d ask for that. He had a wonderful feel on game day.”

Johnson plans to attend the 1964 Reunion for the Alabama game. He’s rarely been back since joining Jackie Sherrill at Pitt in 1977 after Broyles retired.

“I hope to be there,” Johnson said. “I have a plane now and I go to Los Angeles for the Fox NFL show on the weekends. The plane is going to make it easier to be in there Friday night and then for the game Saturday with Alabama. I really look forward to it.”

Jimmy Johnson played middle guard for the 1964 national champs.

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