Johnson takes Southern Miss job
COLUMBIA -- South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier already has a short-term replacement for defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who was introduced Tuesday as the new head coach at Southern Mississippi. Now, Spurrier just needs to figure out the long-term replacement.
Johnson, former head coach of The Citadel who spent four seasons at USC, said at his press conference in Hattiesburg, Miss., that he will not coach in the Jan. 2 Capital One Bowl against Nebraska. Spurrier said defensive backs coach Lorenzo Ward will run the defense in that game and will be a candidate for Johnson's job.
Ward has the title of defensive coordinator, but Johnson, who was listed as the assistant head coach for defense, was in charge of that unit. Ward, in his third season at USC, was a defensive coordinator just once before, from 1998-99 at Tennessee-Chattanooga.
Spurrier declined to address other specific candidates, but said, "I've got several guys in mind. Certainly, coach Ward will be strongly considered, as well as several others."
Two of the most prominent names that could come up are Mike Stoops and Vic Koenning.
Stoops was Arizona's head coach from 2004 until he was fired in
October. Before that, he spent five seasons as the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma, working under his older brother, Bob. The Sooners won the national championship in Bob Stoops' second season, 2000.
Spurrier knows Bob Stoops well, and Spurrier's son, USC wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr., was an assistant under Bob at Oklahoma from 1999-2001 and under Mike at Arizona in 2004, before he came to Columbia with his father in 2005.
Koenning spent the past two seasons as the defensive coordinator at Illinois under Ron Zook, who was recently fired. Koenning turned down an offer from new Illinois coach Tim Beckman to remain the defensive coordinator.
Koenning has reportedly agreed to join former Southern Miss head coach Larry Fedora at North Carolina, but nothing is official yet, which leaves open the possibility that he could pursue the USC defensive coordinator job. Koenning was previously the defensive coordinator at Clemson (2005-08) and Kansas State (2009).
Spurrier said after Tuesday's practice that he has already received inquiries about Johnson's job.
"It's sort of interesting how many people are calling," he said. "I don't know if 10, 20 years ago, a lot of people wanted to coach at South Carolina. But there's a bunch of them out there now that would seem to love to come here. I think because we're winning."
The Capital One Bowl is one of the biggest games in USC's history, as the Gamecocks are playing for a school-record 11th win. It also would have given Johnson a chance to coach against Nebraska, which just so happens to be Southern Miss's first opponent next season. But Spurrier said Southern Miss wanted Johnson to start immediately.
Johnson, who turns 60 on Friday, has accomplished much during the twilight of his career. He was the lead recruiter for USC true freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the nation's top-ranked prospect. His defense this season ranks fourth nationally in yards allowed per game. And he started his Southern Miss tenure Tuesday with bold talk about his goals.
"I still had that itch to be a head coach again," he said. "I want to take the Golden Eagles to a BCS football game and win it. I didn't have to take on a head coaching job at my stage in my career. It was just too good of an opportunity to pass up."
Some will raise eyebrows about Johnson's age. He brushed off concerns about whether he has enough energy to be a head coach by uttering a line that filled the room with uproarious laughter.
"I've had no complaints from Caroline," he said, referring to his 35-year-old wife. "At least none I want to share."
Spurrier said junior running back Kenny Miles will start the bowl game instead of true freshman Brandon Wilds, because Miles played better in USC's last game, a win over Clemson. Wilds became the starter after Marcus Lattimore suffered a season-ending knee injury in the seventh game. Wilds held the No. 1 spot until Miles replaced him during the Clemson game.