COLUMBIA -- In 2008, Ellis Johnson was a candidate for the head coaching vacancy at Southern Mississippi. The school hired Larry Fedora, and Johnson switched, for the 2008 season, from being Mississippi State's defensive coordinator to the same job at South Carolina.
After four seasons in Columbia, Johnson is once again in the mix for the Southern Miss job. He interviewed with school officials Wednesday in New Orleans, according to the Hattiesburg American newspaper, which reported that Johnson and current Southern Miss offensive coordinator Blake Anderson are the leading candidates for the job.
It is open because Fedora became the head coach at North Carolina. Southern Miss has already interviewed Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monken, according to the paper, and will speak with Murray State head coach Chris Hatcher, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and Mississippi defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, whose departure from USC created the vacancy filled by Johnson.
Fedora was making $704,500 at Southern Miss, according to USA Today. Johnson was the seventh-highest paid assistant coach in college football this season ($706,000). Smart was No. 3 ($850,000). Johnson's salary was doubled to its current amount after the 2009 season, when Tennessee tried to lure him away to coordinate its defense.
Johnson, who turns 60 next Friday, has been a head coach twice before, in 1983 at Gardner- Webb, and from 2001-03 at The Citadel, his alma mater. The Citadel is considered one of the toughest coaching jobs in college football, and he achieved a 6-6 record in his final season before he went to Mississippi State.
There, and at USC, he has proven himself to be one of the nation's most successful assistants. Mississippi State won nine combined games from 2004-06, then went 8-5 in 2007, as Johnson's defense ranked No. 22 nationally in yards allowed and No. 35 in points allowed. At USC, his defenses have ranked No. 13, 15, 46 and 4 in yards and No. 30, 24, 43 and 12 in points.
Johnson also was the lead recruiter for Rock Hill defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the top-rated recruit in the Class of 2011 and this season's Southeastern Conference freshman of the year. Johnson knows recruiting in Mississippi not just from his time at Mississippi State, but also from his two seasons (1988-89) as Southern Miss defensive coordinator. He also held that job at Clemson (1994-96) and Alabama (1997-2000).
Coming to USC gave Johnson's family an opportunity to return home. He grew up in Winnsboro, 30 miles north of Columbia. His wife, Caroline, is from Columbia, where she currently owns a boutique that sells women's and children's USC apparel.
Though Johnson is approaching retirement age, he said last month he doesn't plan to retire "any time soon." He said he wants to coach "at least 10 more years," as his children are in the first, third and fifth grades.
It seems he will soon find out where he will coach next season, and USC head coach Steve Spurrier will learn if he must replace another assistant this offseason. Running backs coach Jay Graham has already left for the same job at Tennessee, his alma mater.
There is a good chance Southern Miss will hire its new head coach this weekend, and perhaps as early as today, according to the Hattiesburg newspaper.