No bowl for Ellis Johnson

Veteran assistant to begin work as Southern Miss coach immediately

jkendall@thestate.comDecember 20, 2011 

Southern Miss Johnson Football

Southern Mississippi president Martha Saunders, center, and new football coach Ellis Johnson shout out the school's cheer following a news conference introducing Johnson, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011, in Hattiesburg, Miss. Johnson spent the past four years as defensive coordinator at South Carolina. Joining them on stage is Johnson's wife, Caroline Johnson, left. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

ROGELIO V. SOLIS/AP

Ellis Johnson is leaving South Carolina, and he’s leaving immediately.

Johnson, until Tuesday the Gamecocks assistant head coach for defense, was announced Tuesday evening as the new head coach at Southern Miss. He will not coach No. 10 South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 2, he said.

“Right now, I work for the Golden Eagles and all of my efforts and all of my thoughts will be with building this program,” Johnson said. “That’s always a difficult decision. I don’t want to be a distraction at South Carolina. That’s a very difficult separation.”

The Gamecocks play Nebraska in the bowl game, the same Nebraska team Southern Miss will play in the first game of the 2012 season. Johnson almost decided to stick around for the bowl game just to scout the Cornhuskers, he joked.

“My intentions are to come to work and get ready to coach Southern Miss as soon as possible,” he said.

South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier was uncertain until Tuesday night following practice if Johnson would coach in the bowl game, he said. The Gamecocks were on the practice field as Johnson was holding his introductory press conference in Hattiesburg, Miss.

“That’s fine,” Spurrier said. “We had sort of left that up the air, but it appears they wanted him out there.”

Lorenzo Ward, who already has the title of defensive coordinator, will oversee the defense during the bowl game, Spurrier said.

“Our guys have practiced pretty well all year,” Spurrier said. “Hopefully, we will know what to do. Our defensive coaches hopefully are ready to handle it, and we’ll go from there.”

Spurrier congratulated Johnson on his opportunity.

“Someone said it’s the first assistant coach in South Carolina football history to be named the head coach at a Division I school, so that’s neat,” Spurrier said. “We are proud of that. We are happy that people out there consider our coaches good coaches.”

Johnson, 59, replaces Larry Fedora, who will coach the Golden Eagles in the Hawaii Bowl on Saturday before taking the head coaching job at North Carolina. Southern Miss has had 18 straight winning seasons and gone to 10 straight bowl games, a tradition school president Martha Saunders pointed out to Johnson while introducing him.

“You should know in 2012 when our new freshmen enter school, they won’t be able to recall our last losing season because they weren’t born then. … No pressure,” she said.

Southern Miss’ tradition invigorates Johnson, he said.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s an exciting challenge,” he said. “I can’t tell you how honored I am to be here. At this stage in my career, it is absolutely the most exciting thing to happen to me.”

Johnson will try to implement one of Spurrier’s philosophies at Southern Miss, he said.

“When you take on a task such as this, you want to study the program and you want to find something that has not been done before. Frankly, there is very little left,” he said. “I want to take the Golden Eagles to a BCS football bowl game and win it. I hope that is one step that we can take.”

Johnson will begin assembling a staff immediately, he said, but he declined to name any candidates.

Johnson, who will turn 60 on Friday, said his age won’t prevent him from attacking the job with vigor.

“I have had no complaints from (wife) Caroline,” he said.

Chuck Allen, a South Carolina board of trustees member, said the Gamecocks will miss Johnson.

“I would just say that he did a hell of a good job for the University of South Carolina,” Allen said. “I wish him the best of luck in his new assignment. I think they have made a very good choice. It’s our loss and their gain.”

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