Spurrier introduces Ellis Johnson as new DC

On what had to be one of the busier and more unexpected days in the history of Gamecock football, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder left to join the Atlanta Falcons, and Ellis Johnson was hired to be the new leader of the defense all in the span of less than 12 hours. Read inside for a full report on Johnson's introduction as USC's new defensive coordinator.

"We've had a little activity today," Steve Spurrier joked at the start of a press conference announcing the coaching changes.

VanGorder coached linebackers for the Falcons last season. When Falcons coach Bobby Petrino resigned to take over at Arkansas, VanGorder was in need of a new job. In December, he reached an agreement on a three year contract to join Spurrier's coaching staff, though he had yet to sign the contract. However, when VanGorder's close friend Mike Smith, with whom he worked with the Jacksonville Jaguars, took over for the Falcons, he sought to bring VanGorder on as defensive coordinator. VanGorder consulted with Spurrier Thursday morning before making the decision. Spurrier said he wishes VanGorder success, and accepts the turnabout as part of the coaching profession.

"He was sort of torn, and I said, 'Brian if that's something you want to do that's fine,'" said Spurrier. "Brian came in and said, 'I'm sort of stuck here.' He told me what had happened. Really when you more than double your salary in life, not many people stay in the same place. You get an offer you can't refuse sometimes. It's a better opportunity."

No details of VanGorder's contract with the Gamecocks or Falcons were made public, but Spurrier indicated several times that the Falcons were paying VanGorder 2-3 times what he would have made at Carolina.

After speaking with VanGorder, Spurrier went on a recruiting visit. On the way, he first called Petrino to ask permission to speak to Johnson, and then called Johnson. Then the defensive coordinator at Mississippi State, Johnson interviewed with Spurrier prior to the hiring of VanGorder, so there was no need to conduct another session. Furthermore, like VanGorder, Johnson had not yet signed his contract with Arkansas. Johnson immediately agreed to a three year deal to join the Gamecocks and return to his home state. A native of Winnsboro, SC, Johnson graduated from The Citadel and made coaching stops at Gaffney and Spartanburg High Schools, Clemson, and The Citadel, where he was the head coach from 2001-2003. In addition to his last two stops at Arkansas and Mississippi State, Johnson also coached at Southern Miss and had two stops at Alabama, where he was the linebackers coach during the 1992 National Championship season.

Johnson acknowledged that the timing of the move was "delicate," but said anything can happen in coaching.

"It's difficult," he said. "After 32 years nothing surprises me, but it was unusual. Coach Spurrier and I talked very briefly during his previous search. I was happy to when he called this morning. Coach Spurrier is a proven winner."

The whole thing happened so quickly, Johnson had not had time to tell his whole family that he was moving again, or when he will be moving to Columbia. There was even a painter still working on his new house in Fayetteville.

"There's a painter at the house as we speak that we've got to go stop," Johnson said laughing.

Given the events that transpired, Johnson takes over the job with the tag of being a second choice. Trying to allay concerns that he is settling for Johnson, Spurrier did his best to emphasize that Johnson was nearly the first choice.

"You might say, 'Why didn't you hire him the first time?" he said. "The answer is I really should have. Ellis is a guy that knows how to soundly coach a defense. I think we got a top-notch defensive coordinator, one of the best in the country."

Several times, Spurrier was asked by a reporter why he wanted to bring Johnson onto the staff. Each time the question was asked, Spurrier held up a stat sheet and reminded everyone Mississippi State was "fifth in total defense" in the SEC last season.

For his part, Johnson, who has had two defenses (Alabama 1999 and Clemson 1996) finish in the Top 10 nationally in total defense, described his coaching philosophy in two words: fundamentals and speed.

"My philosophy about defense is simple – get the most speed on the field you can get and make sure your team scheme accommodates that," he said. "You want a defense with fundamentals: tackling, running to the football and proper pursuit angles, speed, speed, speed."

Given all the recent changes, Johnson was asked if he planned to make this his last stop.

"It will be my last stop only if we're successful," he replied, implying he will only leave if he is fired.


- Eager to get some good publicity, Spurrier made sure all the media members present knew that the football team had a 2.5 GPA during the fall semester. Ten seniors graduated in December, with six of the remaining seven seniors on track to graduate this May.

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