Southern Miss hires Ellis Johnson

HATTIESBURG, Miss. -- Ellis Johnson is taking over the Southern Miss football program and the veteran defensive coordinator has big goals for the Golden Eagles: Lead them to a BCS game.

The 59-year-old Johnson was introduced Tuesday during a press conference on campus. He has spent the past four years as defensive coordinator at South Carolina, and has substantial ties in Mississippi, previously working as defensive coordinator at Mississippi State and Southern Miss.

The Winnsboro, S.C., native takes over a program that has had 18 straight winning seasons and been to 10 straight bowl games, but has not made it to a Bowl Championship Series game like Boise State and TCU, two non-BCS conference schools that have managed to crash the elite college football club.

"As I take over this program, I'm looking for something that's never been done before," Johnson said. "Frankly, there's very little left. It's intimidating, but it's also challenging."

Johnson replaces Larry Fedora, who is leaving Southern Miss after four seasons to take the North Carolina job. The Golden Eagles just completed their first 10-win season since 1988 and won a Conference USA title for the first time since 2003.

Fedora will be there to coach Southern Miss against Nevada in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24.

Johnson said he would not coach in South Carolina's game against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 2. He said he would begin work for the Golden Eagles immediately.

Johnson said he was aware that his age would raise some eyebrows, considering many new coaching hires are in their 30s or 40s. But he insisted he had plenty of energy for the job.

"I've had no complaints from Caroline," he said, looking back at his wife as the estimated crowd of 250 roared in laughter.

The hire was well-received by former Southern Miss quarterback and NFL star Brett Favre.

"Ellis is a great coach with a winning resume who knows Golden Eagle football and its fan base," Favre said in a statement released by the university. "I'm confident Coach Johnson will do a great job."

Johnson's hiring isn't completely surprising considering he was a candidate for the job four years ago when Fedora was hired. But his defensive-minded strengths are a 180-degree departure from Fedora, who came to Southern Miss after successful stints as the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State and Florida.

The timing was also strange.

While Johnson was introduced to cheering fans in Hattiesburg, the team found out the news thousands of miles away in Hawaii, where they are preparing for Saturday's game against Nevada. Current offensive coordinator Blake Anderson -- who is also in Hawaii -- was also a candidate for the job.

But Johnson tried to quell any concerns about his offensive philosophy by saying the Golden Eagles would continue to run the spread offense that was so successful under Fedora.

"The spread is no longer the innovation, it's the norm," Johnson said. "Some people are doing it better than others, but that's the offense of today. That's what players are playing in high school and that's what guys want to do in college. I don't want to get away from that, but I'm sure we'll put our special brand on it."

Still, it is defensive success that has kept Johnson employed for years.

Johnson led a South Carolina defense that ranked fourth nationally in total yardage this season, giving up just 268 yards per game. In four seasons with the Gamecocks, Johnson's defense ranked in the Top 15 nationally in total yardage three times.

Johnson said he hoped to have his coordinators in place by the end of the year and then would quickly add the rest of his coaching staff as the Golden Eagles prepare for the final stretch of recruiting season before the Feb. 1 National Signing Day.