/How a freak accident led to a storybook reunion for Ed Orgeron and his old coach

How a freak accident led to a storybook reunion for Ed Orgeron and his old coach

NEW ORLEANS — LSU defensive line coach Bill Johnson is a rookie on the Tigers’ staff, an emergency hire who didn’t join the team until August, after a freak injury sidelined another assistant. But you would never know it by the respect he is afforded in the Tigers’ building, particularly by head coach Ed Orgeron.

“Coach Johnson, that’s my guy. Energy, energy, energy,” said Rashard Lawrence, LSU’s All-SEC senior defensive lineman. “But one thing I haven’t seen yet since Coach Johnson’s been here is Coach O yell at him. It’s pretty funny. I’ve seen times when Coach O will be getting on an assistant coach. But whenever it’s with Coach Johnson, it’s like, ‘Hey, Bill, this is what’s up.'”

“They go way, way back,” Lawrence said. “You can’t yell at your coach.”

Johnson, 65, and Orgeron, 58, won’t find much on which they disagree. They share a talent for coaching large men, a Gulf-sized love of their native Louisiana and a bond in this state that dates back to 1980 in Natchitoches. That’s where Orgeron, a defensive lineman for the Northwestern State Demons, was a prized pupil of Johnson, the team’s defensive line coach.

“If you look up the definition of a Louisianan in the dictionary, there’d be one picture of Bill Johnson, and right next to him would be Ed Orgeron,” said Dennis Allen, defensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints, where Allen worked with both.

Orgeron has proved to be the perfect fit at LSU. But Johnson, who won a state championship as a player at Monroe’s Neville High School and was the defensive line coach for the Saints’ only Super Bowl championship in the franchise’s history, has his own Bayou State bona fides.

Still, they didn’t plan on working together this season, aside from a quick offseason visit by Johnson at Orgeron’s request. And there isn’t a plan for whether they’ll continue to work together next year. But a bizarre sequence of events led them back to this one-year arrangement in perhaps the most storied season in LSU history. It has led them to a spot in Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN app) against Clemson.

In July, Dennis Johnson (no relation), a former LSU player who was in his second season coaching the D-line in Baton Rouge, suffered a freak accident in a pickup basketball game, tearing the patellar tendons in both knees and then being confined to a wheelchair. Bill Johnson, meanwhile, had just been let go by the Los Angeles Rams after two seasons that included a Super Bowl appearance and a pair of NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards for defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

“There was a situation where Dennis Johnson couldn’t coach on the field,” Orgeron said Saturday. “Bill got me into coaching. Now I needed him to coach, because I was [serving as] the defensive line coach. He came in there and did a tremendous job for us. He brings so much to our school. He loves being here; he’s from north Louisiana. He loves being here at LSU. Tremendous, tremendous coach.”

Dennis Johnson, 31, has recovered from his injuries and remained on staff as an analyst. Bill said they had a very collaborative relationship, and noted proudly that Dennis had also coached at Northwestern State before coming back home.

Bill Johnson said he’d been visiting with Orgeron when the injury happened. He was prepared to head to his house at Lake Sinclair in Georgia and kick back after 39 years in coaching before Orgeron asked him to stick around the rest of the year. “I did not know when I went down there that this was gonna work out like this,” Johnson said.

“He said, ‘Well, you know, I gotta think about it,” Orgeron said this summer. “Then he turned around two seconds later and said I’m comin’.”

There aren’t many coaches with his experience available in the middle of the summer. Much less hanging around the building.

“He’s got as good a résumé as you can have for a defensive line coach,” said R.C. Slocum, who hired Johnson at Texas A&M and worked with him there from 1992 to 1999 and still talks to him frequently. “The guy’s a great guy. He makes other coaches on the staff better. He’s a player’s coach. He can be demanding. He’s got tremendous knowledge. It’s just gotta be perfect to have him there.”

Lawrence agreed.

“He’s an older Coach O,” Lawrence said. “He’s got some of the same traits that Coach O has. He’s played on multiple championship teams. Been in the big games. Won some, lost some. He brings experience, first-hand. He tells us all these stories. Even from last year, with the Rams and how they handled this situation. Coach Johnson is a hell of a coach and an even better man.”

Orgeron and Johnson’s lives have intertwined for four decades. Orgeron got his first big break as a graduate assistant at the University of Miami, replacing Johnson, who had just left the position after the Hurricanes’ national championship in 1987. Johnson got a dream job with the Saints by replacing Orgeron when he left to go to the University of Tennessee as part of Lane Kiffin’s staff.

Orgeron even introduced Johnson to his wife, Dawn, another Louisiana native (“She says she’s from Winslow, but she’s really from mile marker 100, Highway 84,” Bill says). They’ve been married nearly 40 years.

This history has led to a storybook season for the old coach and his former pupil. Johnson can’t even imagine what it would feel like to win a national championship with LSU. And he doesn’t want to until the game is finally over and the task is completed.

“I love Louisiana football. I grew up in Louisiana,” Johnson said. “To be able to get this done in my career and be a part of a special team like this in Louisiana, along with the Super Bowl and my high school team?” Johnson pondered. “I don’t know what words to use. I really don’t. I’m not looking for those words right now. Hopefully, later down the road, I can find some words to explain that.”

Allen said Johnson’s contributions are legendary, particularly a state with such a love affair for its teams.

“He’s been a part of the top echelon at every level. How many people can say that? That they’ve won a state championship, a national championship and a Super Bowl?” said Allen of what Johnson has already accomplished. “That’s a small group in itself. But for someone to have a chance to accomplish all three of these things with his home-state teams, that’s pretty cool.”

Neither Orgeron nor Johnson have committed to Johnson’s return after this season. But that isn’t a concern with Clemson looming and a chance at history.

“It’s been an honor being able to get to be a part of this with a guy I go back a long way with,” Johnson said. “Football’s been good to me. I’m 65 years old, man. I’m on the back end of this thing, there’s no doubt about it. How many years left, I don’t know. I guess the day will come. Who knows? Who cares? All I’m worried about is the next 48 hours.”