Kurt Warner has fond memories of watching Jay Johnson play quarterback for Northern Iowa, even if those steady, efficient performances kept Warner buried on the Panthers bench.
“You couldn’t really shake him,” Warner said in a recent phone interview. “He was able to handle pressure situations very well.”
Warner eventually did OK for himself, becoming a Super Bowl champion and two-time NFL Most Valuable Player. And the QB he could never pass on the depth chart has become the Gophers’ new offensive coordinator.
“Jay wasn’t the most talented guy physically,” Warner said. “The reason he played, and the reason our team had so much success when he was starting, was because he was so smart. He understood how to get people in the right play.”
Gophers coach Tracy Claeys is counting on that expertise after hiring Johnson from Louisiana-Lafayette last December to inject life into the team’s offense. Minnesota ranked no higher than 103rd nationally in total offense in five years under previous offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover.
A Lakeville native, Johnson brings 22 years of college coaching experience along with everything he learned from going 31-8 as a starting quarterback at Northern Iowa.
“As a play caller, I think through the eyes of the quarterback,” Johnson said. “I’m always thinking, ‘If I’m out there, and I’ve got the ball in my hands, and this coach is asking me to do this, how am I going to respond?’ ”
Johnson, 46, arrived with a small-world connection to Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner. When Leidner was at Lakeville South, his quarterbacks coach was Johnson’s father, Dick.
Now, after seven months of working together, Leidner and the younger Johnson have forged their own relationship.
Leidner appreciates Johnson’s ability to keep things simple. Last week, the senior told ESPN.com: “There’s no question that [consistency] is going to improve immensely. Because last year we were changing up game plans every single week, and we were coming in with 100 new plays and guys’ heads would be spinning. We wouldn’t be able to practice at full speed. It was just tough.”
Leidner marvels at his new coach’s ultra-focused, energetic style. Johnson rises at 4:20 each morning to go running or lift weights. He never sits down during meetings and keeps the quarterbacks’ attention with written quizzes.
“He’s got a little stopwatch that beeps at different times of the day, to remind him that he needs to do things,” Leidner said. “He’s so organized, so professional, it’s unbelievable. You can tell he’s definitely on top of his life.”
Johnson threw himself into the job right after he was hired. With his wife, Lori, and son, Cole, finishing the school year in Louisiana, Johnson spent a few months living alone in Minnesota. He rented a place at the NorthStar apartment complex, with a view overlooking the Gophers practice facility. He barely used his car.
“I’d go to Target in Dinkytown, and then on Sunday nights, I’d go to Vescio’s and get a sandwich or something,” he said. “It’s quite a unique place, which I don’t think I knew the magnitude of that, even growing up [in Minnesota] and being a Gopher fan.
“You walk two blocks, you see U.S. Bank Stadium, you see that skyline, and it’s pretty magnificent.”
As a kid, Johnson saw Tony Dungy play at Memorial Stadium and cheered on Jim Dutcher’s Gophers when they clinched the 1982 Big Ten title at Williams Arena. Johnson had some hope of playing for Minnesota himself but couldn’t catch the eye of then-coach John Gutekunst.
So Johnson headed to Northern Iowa, where he was the starting quarterback for three years, while Warner idled on the bench.
Terry Allen, Northern Iowa’s coach then, once told the Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal that Warner “could riddle the defense. But the problem was, can you risk making the switch to a guy with probably a livelier arm from a guy who does everything right and you don’t lose?”
After graduating from UNI, Johnson got a master’s degree at Missouri, where he worked as a football graduate assistant. By then, he knew he wanted to coach. When Augsburg needed an offensive coordinator, he was the only candidate to show up with a comprehensive playbook.
“You knew he was going places,” then-Augsburg coach Jack Osberg said. “You could feel the energy out of him. After talking to him, I wanted to go play for him.”
Johnson spent the 1995 season with the Auggies before continuing along the coaching trail to Truman State, Kansas, Southern Miss, Louisville, Central Michigan and, for the past five years, as the offensive coordinator at Louisiana-Lafayette.
“The people who’ve worked with Jay all said they wouldn’t hesitate to hire him tomorrow if they were head coaches,” Claeys said. “They felt like he was very good at attacking weaknesses in the defense.”
More specifically, Claeys cited the rushing success Johnson’s previous teams have had using formations featuring just one running back.
“We need to be more diverse in what we do,” Claeys said. “If you look at the film, if there were two backs in the game, we were running it. And if there was one back in the game, we were throwing it. I think we have to mix things up in that regard.”
Claeys fired Limegrover and quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski after the loss to Wisconsin in last year’s regular-season finale. Those two had shared play-calling duties. Claeys wanted one definitive offensive boss.
So Claeys hired Johnson as the coordinator and quarterbacks coach — the same two roles he filled at Louisiana-Lafayette — and brought Bart Miller aboard from Florida Atlantic as the offensive line coach.
The Gophers have retooled their offensive line and return most of the top skill players — all except wide receiver KJ Maye — from last year’s 6-7 team.
“I think we have a chance to do some real positive things,” Johnson said. “I think we have a lot of the pieces in place.”