COLUMBIA -- It was graduation day at Winnsboro High in 1970, and a coach from The Citadel stopped by to chat with Joe Turbeville, who coached the high school's football team, about next year's group of seniors.
During their conversation, Turbeville mentioned he actually had a current senior who played an instrumental role in leading Winnsboro to the state championship.
The kid, who was planning to walk on at Clemson, happened to be working out in the high school weight room at that moment.
That's where The Citadel coach first saw Ellis Johnson. So the coach introduced himself to Johnson, called back to campus and found out there was a last-minute scholarship available. Within a week, Johnson had signed up for cadet life.
Forty-one years later, after playing and coaching at The Citadel, Johnson will coach against his alma mater for
the first time when the Bulldogs visit South Carolina today.
Johnson, 59, is in his fourth season as USC's defensive coordinator. He maintains strong allegiances to The Citadel and donates to the Brigadier Foundation, the school's athletic booster organization.
"I think it's a wonderful place to go to school," he said. "I hear people talk about the character it builds. I don't think it builds character. I think it reveals character."
While Johnson downplayed the emotions he will feel today, he said his experience at The Citadel played a large part in making him the coach he has become.
But he almost didn't stick around past his first semester. Johnson transferred to Army for the 1971 season because his oldest brother, John, who played at Army, had become the school's freshman football coach. So Johnson endured the rigors of The Citadel's knob year as a freshman, then repeated them with the plebe experience at West Point.
"Got to be a tough guy to go through the plebe system twice," said Turbeville, 70, who played at The Citadel in the early 1960s and plans to attend today's game.
Johnson had already stood out as a high school player. Playing fullback, he was the lead blocker for a tailback who ran for 30-some touchdowns. As a middle linebacker, he ordered teammates into the correct gaps before the snap.
"He was really my defensive coordinator," Turbeville said.
Johnson cites Turbeville as his first influence in wanting to become a coach. At The Citadel -- where Johnson returned in 1972 because he missed his friends -- Johnson played under young coaches who went on to become prominent names.
In 1973, Bobby Ross arrived as a 36-year-old, first-time head coach. His first staff included 26-year-old Frank Beamer, 26-year-old Ralph Friedgen (both in their first full-time assistant jobs) and 25-year-old Jimmye Laycock. They would become successful head coaches at Virginia Tech, Maryland and William and Mary.
Johnson studied math and engineering, but decided he wanted to coach after playing under Ross and his staff for a couple of years. Johnson graduated in 1975, and that fall, he worked alongside Friedgen, Beamer and Ross as The Citadel's defensive ends coach.
"Still, a lot of the things I do today came from the structure, the order, the organization, the meticulous approach that he and his staff had," Johnson said. "It was a big influence."
Johnson got his first and only college head coaching job at The Citadel in 2001 and led the Bulldogs to a 12-22 record in three seasons, including 6-6 in his final year.
He won't rule out pursuing another head coaching position, but said he loves where he is now. He wants to coach "at least 10 more years," as his children are in the first, third and fifth grades.
"I don't plan on retiring any time soon," he said. "I don't know anything I would enjoy as much as coaching."
South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore underwent successful surgery to repair a ligament in his knee.
The university said Lattimore had surgery Thursday and his rehabilitation should begin in the next few days.
The sophomore all-Southeastern Conference runner tore a ligament and suffered cartilage damage while blocking for a teammate on Oct. 15 against Mississippi State when a defensive player fell and rolled on his leg.
Lattimore has said he felt something buckle and instantly knew the injury was serious
Lattimore ran for 818 yards in seven games this season before he was hurt. He ran for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns last season as he was named the 2010 SEC Freshman of the year.