Johnson leaves a legacy of coaches

Jim Johnson's enduring legacy in the NFL is not hard to find.

They are the head coaches in Baltimore and St. Louis, the defensive coordinators in Philadelphia, Minnesota and San Diego.

As Andy Reid and Johnson compiled their staff in 1999 when they arrived with the Eagles, eyebrows around the NFL rose because of the unremarkable pedigrees. But little has been made of the nurturing atmosphere Reid and Johnson created that spawned success and advancement for many of their disciples.

"You take a step back and look at the success we've all had. The direct correlation was Jim Johnson," Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said yesterday.

Rivera was the Eagles' linebackers coach from 1999 to 2003. He was the defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears' Super Bowl team in 2006.

"He was definitely a mentor," Rivera said of Johnson. "He gave me my start and my opportunity. He took the time to teach me. I'm extremely grateful for everything he did for me."

Johnson's impact was clear beyond the X's-and-O's that made him one of the game's defensive innovators.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh spent one season as the defensive-backs coach with the Eagles after a long tenure as special-teams coordinator.

"I loved Jim Johnson," Harbaugh said. "Jim was a tremendous teacher of football and life. He had a special ability to bring out the best in people while getting you to see the best in yourself. He saw potential and developed it. He made me believe I could coach at this level. In football, he was a pioneering and brilliant strategist, changing the way defense is played in the NFL. For me, he was a father-type mentor, and above all, a cherished friend. He belongs in the Hall of Fame. I will miss him so much."

Steve Spagnuolo enters his first season as the Rams' head coach after two seasons as the Giants' defensive coordinator. Before that, he was a defensive assistant coach, defensive-backs coach and linebackers coach with the Eagles.

"He was a dear friend and a special person," Spagnuolo said yesterday. "Jim meant the world to me, both personally and professionally. I am very blessed to have had the privilege to work for him and with him. The NFL has lost a good man."

The Vikings have two former Reid assistants, head coach Brad Childress and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. Childress was the Eagles' offensive coordinator (1999-2005) and Frazier the defensive-backs coach (1999-2003).

"Jim Johnson was a great football coach and an even better friend," Frazier said last night. "He was a mentor of mine who helped to shape my coaching philosophy. There are not many games I coach where I don't ask what would Jim do in this situation. I will miss him immensely."

Said Childress: "His wealth of experience and the perspective he put things in was remarkable. People may look at him as a dinosaur, but he knew a lot about the game and it was just great to be around him."

Yesterday, Rivera recalled an early meeting with Johnson.

"I had just finished signing my contract and he walked into my office and closed the door," Rivera said. "He said, 'Listen. I'm an old linebacker coach. Don't take anything personal when I come in and take over your meetings, when I take over your drills. I can't help myself. Don't take it personal when I'm hard on you because I'm just trying to teach you.' That's exactly what he did."

Perhaps the most obvious connection to Johnson is new Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who was not made available for comment last night.

Asked Monday about his former boss, McDermott recalled that his office was next to Johnson's and that he missed Johnson's presence as the team took the field for the first practice at Lehigh. McDermott's mother, Avis, recently said her son was so affected by Johnson's struggle, he has had trouble sleeping, as his mentor began to slip away.

"He had a way about him that you loved just being around the guy," Sean McDermott said.