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Former Drake coach, longtime NFL defensive aide dies of cancer

July 29, 2009
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Jim Johnson

PHILADELPHIA -- Former Drake University Assistant Football Coach Jim Johnson, who gained a reputation as one of the top defensive masterminds in the National Football League, died Tuesday at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania after a battle with cancer. He was 68.

A veteran of 22 years as an NFL assistant, Johnson was regarded as one of the top defensive coordinators in NFL history. Over the last decade, he gained a great deal of praise as the orchestrator of the renowned Philadelphia Eagles defense. His aggressive style kept Philadelphia at or near the top of the NFL in nearly every major defensive category since Johnson joined Andy Reid's staff in January 1999.

Johnson served as defensive coordinator at Drake from 1969-72 under then Bulldog head coach Jack Wallace. The Bulldogs compiled a 28-15-2 record during Johnson's tenure with defensive lineman Mike Samples being selected as a two-time first-team All-Missouri Valley Conference performer.

"In my memory, we've never had an assistant football coach who reached the level of success that Jim Johnson did," said Drake Athletic Historian Paul Morrison. "He was exceedingly well received in his profession. He always paid great attention to detail and had a wonderful, outgoing personality."

A winning career in the NFL

From 2000-08, Johnson's units ranked second in the NFL in sacks (390), 3rd down efficiency (34.0%) and red zone touchdown percentage (43.9%), and fourth in fewest points allowed (17.7 per game). During his 10-year tenure in Philadelphia, the Eagles earned seven playoff berths, five trips to the NFC Championship game and one Super Bowl appearance (following the 2004 season).

As the Eagles' defensive chief, Johnson's defense has produced 26 Pro Bowl selections: Brian Dawkins (7), Troy Vincent (5), Jeremiah Trotter (4), Hugh Douglas (3), Lito Sheppard (2), Asante Samuel (1), Trent Cole (1), Michael Lewis (1), Corey Simon (1), and Bobby Taylor (1).

Four of his defensive assistants have gone on to successful careers with other NFL franchises: Steve Spagnuolo (head coach of the St. Louis Rams), John Harbaugh (head coach of the Baltimore Ravens), Ron Rivera (defensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers) and Leslie Frazier (defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings).

Prior to his tenure in Philadelphia, Johnson served as the linebackers coach with Seattle in 1998. That year, Johnson helped the Seahawks register 10 touchdowns on defense, including eight interceptions returned for scores, second-most in NFL history. He arrived in Seattle after a four-year stint in Indianapolis, the last two as defensive coordinator. While with the Colts, Johnson helped them secure a berth in the AFC Championship game at Pittsburgh in 1995.

Johnson spent eight seasons with the Arizona Cardinals (1986-93).


Success on the field and in the classroom

Johnson began his coaching career as head coach at Missouri Southern (1967-68), before serving four-year tenures at Drake and Indiana. From 1977-83, Johnson served as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at Notre Dame, a stint that included a national championship in 1977.

An all-conference quarterback himself at Missouri (where he played in the same backfield with long-time NFL executive Bill Tobin), Johnson went on to spend two seasons with Buffalo as a tight end (1963-64).

A native of Maywood, Ill., Johnson earned a bachelor's degree in education and a master's degree in physical education from Missouri.

Johnson is survived by his wife, Vicky; two children, Scott and Michelle; and four grandchildren, Katie, Justin, Brandon and Jax.

The Eagles are expected to wear a patch commemorating Johnson on their uniforms this season.