Before he became one of Barry Switzer's most-trusted assistants, Merv Johnson was calling passing plays for Joe Montana at Notre Dame, where he coached from 1975-78. Johnson, OU's director of football operations and color analyst for the Sooner Radio Network, spoke with SoonerNation about his coaching stint at Notre Dame, the veracity of the movie "Rudy," and what is was like to coach Montana in the first of a two-part Q&A:
Jake Trotter: What was the difference between coaching at Notre Dame and Oklahoma?
Merv Johnson: It’s been a long time since I’ve been there. I think there’s nobody that can inspire a team any better than Notre Dame has because they don’t have any fraternities or sororities on campus. Every Friday night they have a fantastic pep rally. It’s big time, especially for a bigger game. You don’t see those on campuses anymore. That’s one place where you do. It gets the players and coaches and everybody jacked up for a ball game as big as you’ll ever see. I used to admire their ability to do that because even then, pep rallies, student body attendance were dwindling a little all across the country. But not there, because it’s the only show in town on Saturday, whether they were home or away. I think essentially they have got a tremendous amount of longtime tradition that those students come there and believe in and rally the support. You can book it; they’ll be ready to play emotionally.
Trotter: Do you have a favorite memory from Notre Dame?
Johnson: Oh, a bunch of them. We won the national championship in 1977, had some great players, [Joe] Montana, Rudy [Ruettiger]. Rudy wasn’t a great player but he’s made a name for himself.
Trotter: How accurate was the movie, "Rudy?"
Johnson: I thought it was pretty close. There were a couple things in there that were totally off-base. You remember when the players threatened to turn their jerseys in, boycott the game if Rudy couldn’t dress? That wasn’t it. A couple of freshmen came in and asked me, we’re not going to play, we know we’re not, let Rudy have our lockers. And the head coach said, 'I think that’s a great idea. Let’s do it.' And they play that up in the movie, which movies have to do. Rudy and [Notre Dame head coach Dan] Devine didn’t have a great relationship, although it wasn’t a problem. But Ara [Parseghian, the Fighting Irish's previous head coach] had been through [Rudy] trying to get into the university. That was Dan’s first year there. But I thought the way they depicted it, his never say die ... he was quick as a cat. He didn’t have great speed, so they played him on the line. And the offensive linemen just had a terrible time with him because he’s all over the place. A little quick guy drives you nuts in practice, and he did. The other thing at the end of the game, I think they played it up, the game with Georgia Tech, they played it up where the QB changed the play to try to score so Rudy could get in. That wasn’t true at all. They jumped into a man-to-man defense, which we had worked on, he audibled like he was supposed to and hit a TD pass, and it gave Rudy his two plays. Other than that I didn’t see anything in there that was far off.
Trotter: What was Montana like?
Johnson: Joe was very likeable. Laid back. Lot of confidence. The great quality he had from the get-go, and it hurt him getting the starting role, he had a lot of confidence in himself and he wouldn’t let a poor play bother him. I think that frustrated the head coach a little bit in practice if a bad play occurred, he didn’t take it as hard as he wanted him to. So it took a little while to win the head man over. But he was just like he was in the pros, had ice-water in his veins, had a lot of confidence. I never saw him panic.
Trotter: Did you have any inkling Montana would do what he did in the NFL?
Johnson: No, because I thought a pro quarterback had to have a cannon for an arm. He had to throw it through a concrete wall. But by virtue of what the coach at San Francisco wanted, the West Coast offense, he was perfect for it. I think that’s what he kind of wanted. He fit perfectly. Extremely accurate. He had a nice arm, but just didn’t have a cannon like some of those guys those days. I just thought that’s what you had to have to play pro ball, and maybe you did for some of those offenses. But not for what he played.
Trotter: Who is the best player you ever coached?
Johnson: That wouldn’t be fair to any of them. There have been so many good ones. Obviously [Montana] was really good. Keith Jackson is one of the best athletes I’ve ever been around for a big man. There’s been a bunch of linemen, but I don’t know I could say they were the best. But those two really stood out for what they did in college and what they went on to do in the pros.