Pinning Auburn’s incredible turnaround this season on just one or two factors or even one or two people, for that matter, would be unfair.
The Tigers and first-year coach Gus Malzahn have done a myriad of things right to get to this point.
But it’s no coincidence that the first hire Malzahn made on his staff was veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who in a year’s time has gone from one of the most forgettable experiences of his long and illustrious coaching career to one of the most memorable.
“This has almost been like a fairy tale, to be here winning like we are and doing something that nobody thought we could,” Johnson said. “But I don’t connect the two situations. I really don’t. I know that may sound strange, but what’s happening here is fun because winning is fun and losing is miserable.”
Just a little more than a year ago, the highly respected Johnson was out of a job after just one season as the head coach at Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles suffered through a disastrous 0-12 campaign, and Johnson didn’t get a second season.
It’s a losing streak that eventually reached 23 in a row and was finally snapped, ironically, last Saturday against UAB on the same day Auburn delivered its stunning 34-28 upset over then No. 1 Alabama.
As happy as Johnson was for the players and the entire community at Auburn, he was equally relieved to see Southern Miss finally end its drought.
“I really loved that place, and it hurt to see it in such disarray,” said Johnson, who had been at Southern Miss as defensive coordinator in 1988-89.
“Last year was painful for me professionally, but it was painful for me to watch that place and know through my years of experience what was wrong and nobody wanted to listen. They wanted to blame somebody other than their own problems, and I was the guy they wanted to blame because I was the guy there at the time.”
Again, though, Johnson is too much of a pro and too much of a bottom-line guy to get bogged down in what did or didn’t happen in the past.
So about three days after being fired, he gladly took Malzahn’s call. Not long after that, Johnson was back in the SEC at his fourth different school as defensive coordinator.
“I’m blessed to be here, back in the SEC and one of the best schools in the conference, one of the best places to live and great people,” Johnson said. “It’s been a blessing for me because I left a wonderful situation [at South Carolina] and being at home in Columbia and then got into that mess at Southern Miss.
“Looking back at it, I must be extremely lucky to have escaped with just a knot on my head instead of absolute destruction.”
The Tigers were even luckier that someone of Johnson’s caliber was available, and Malzahn acted quickly to land him with Florida State also interested.
“He was one of the keys to putting together our staff,” Malzahn said. “I knew how valuable he would be and knew we had to get him.”
While Auburn’s total and passing yardage numbers on defense this season haven’t been eye-popping, the Tigers have been significantly better where it counts -- keeping people out of the end zone.
They’re fifth in the SEC in scoring defense (22.5 points per game) after finishing 10th a year ago (28.5 points per game). They’re also second in the league in red zone defense and came up with one of the biggest defensive plays of the season last week in stopping Alabama on fourth-and-1 from the Auburn 13 in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve given up too much trash yardage on defense and way too many big plays, but we’ve gotten better,” Johnson said. “We’re playing a lot of young kids, and one of the things that’s so encouraging is that we’ve come up with a lot of big plays in the second half. We’re not where Auburn should be or will be on defense by any stretch, but we’ll get there.”
This will be Johnson’s fifth SEC championship game appearance with his third different team. He also went with Alabama and South Carolina.
The fact he’s even here still seems a bit surreal given how painful last season was. But after 38 years of coaching, Johnson isn’t surprised by much.
“When you’re in this business, you get so caught up in the day-to-day grind,” Johnson said. “The fun is in the winning and seeing the kids improve and having success. That’s what is so rewarding.
“The rest of it, when it doesn’t go the way you want it to, you just learn to live with it and know a lot of things you can’t control. But, yes, this sure has been a lot of fun.”