BY JOHN ROHDE
April 6, 2017
Merv Johnson’s 60 years in college football included some of the sport’s most significant moments:
• Born in King City, Mo., Johnson was recruited by and played for one of the sport’s greatest innovators in Missouri coach Don Faurot, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame who is credited for inventing the Split-T formation in 1941. “That was pretty special,” Johnson said of being recruited by the legendary Faurot.
• As a Missouri senior in 1957, Johnson was selected as an All-Big Seven Conference offensive tackle for the Tigers under first-year coach Frank Broyles, who had replaced Faurot.
• On Nov. 9, 1957, OU beat Missouri 39-14 in Columbia. The following week, the Sooners’ streak of 47 straight victories came to an end with a 7-0 loss at home to unranked Notre Dame. Yup, Johnson played for the last team OU defeated in its record-setting run.
• Johnson followed Broyles to Arkansas in 1958 and was an assistant there for two seasons before returning to his alma mater as an assistant under coach Dan Devine, who had replaced Broyles at Missouri. While with the Razorbacks, Johnson served as a “dorm coach” and had to keep an eye on a player named Barry Switzer, who served as team captain his senior year in 1959. Broyles convinced Switzer to put his plans to attend law school on hold and instead go into coaching. After Johnson returned to Missouri, Switzer replaced him as dorm coach.
• After two seasons as an assistant under Devine at Missouri, Johnson returned to Arkansas and was on staff during the Razorbacks’ heydays throughout the 1960s. In 1964, Arkansas finished as the nation’s only unbeaten team (11-0) and was recognized as national champion by the Football Writers Association of America. This came during a stretch when the Hogs won 22 straight. The Razorbacks’ roster included future championship coach Jimmy Johnson (No. 60) and future Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones (No. 61), plus assistant coach Jim Mackenzie, who served as OU head coach in 1966 before dying of a heart attack at age 37 the following April after returning from a recruiting trip.
• On Dec. 6, 1969, in the original contest referred to as the “Game of the Century,” Merv Johnson was offensive line coach for No. 2-ranked Arkansas and faced No. 1-ranked Texas at Fayetteville in a Southwest Conference showdown. Both teams were 9-0 and the Razorbacks led 14-0 through three quarters before losing 15-14. The unbeaten Longhorns went on to become national champs. President Richard M. Nixon was in attendance and prematurely bequeathed a national championship trophy to Texas even though Penn State also would go on to finish unbeaten.
• In 1975, Johnson became offensive coordinator/offensive line coach at Notre Dame, where he was reunited with Devine. On Nov. 8, in the Irish’s final home game that season, walk-on Daniel Ruettiger was inserted during the closing minutes against Georgia Tech. What transpired was made into the 1993 movie “Rudy.” Johnson said much of the film was accurate, but not all.
• In 1977, with Johnson serving as offensive coordinator, Notre Dame claimed the national title over Alabama, Arkansas, Texas and Penn State, with all five teams finishing with 11-1 records. The Irish clinched the crown with a 38-10 victory over the Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl. Following that season, Johnson was promoted to assistant head coach.
• On Jan. 1, 1979, in what became known as the “Chicken Soup Game,” senior quarterback Joe Montana led Notre Dame to a 35-34 comeback victory over Houston in the Cotton Bowl. The contest was played one day after the worst ice storm in Dallas in 30 years. During the game, Montana’s body temperature dropped to 96 degrees and he remained in the locker room after halftime so the team’s medical staff could feed him chicken bouillon and cover him with warm blankets. With Montana at the helm and Johnson calling the plays, the Irish overcame a 34-12 deficit in the fourth quarter, winning with an 8-yard touchdown pass on the game’s final play and then converting the extra point. Shortly thereafter, Switzer hired Johnson as assistant head coach/offensive line coach at OU.
• With sophomore quarterback Troy Aikman out with a broken ankle and still five months away from transferring to UCLA, backup Jamelle Holieway became the first freshman quarterback in college history to lead his team to the national championship. The Sooners claimed their sixth national crown with a 25-10 victory over top-ranked Penn State in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1, 1986. With Johnson coaching the offensive line, OU transformed its blocking schemes from featuring a future NFL Hall of Fame quarterback to an option magician running the wishbone.
• In 2000, in just the second season under head coach Bob Stoops and with Johnson helping handle the program’s behind-the-scenes operations, the Sooners captured their seventh national title.