At a program known for frequently scoring “half-a-hundred” points on opponents, Oklahoma football icon Merv Johnson on Saturday will attain “half-a-thousand.”
When the No. 4-ranked Sooners (12-1) take on No. 1-ranked Alabama (13-0) in a College Football Playoff semifinal at 7 p.m. CT on Saturday in the Capital One Orange Bowl, it will mark Johnson’s 500th consecutive OU game.
In his familiar aw-shucks manner, Johnson downplays this astonishing milestone. “Doesn’t really mean anything,” Johnson said. “I’m just lucky I could show up.”
No one has spent more time inside the Sooners’ football program than the 82 year-old Johnson, who formally retired early last year after 38 seasons as an assistant coach (1979-97) and director of football operations (1998-2017). Johnson continues his role as the team’s radio analyst, however.
The enormity of witnessing 500 straight OU games borders on impossible.
“That might be an all-time record,” Johnson admitted. “I can’t imagine a fan being at 500 straight. They might have a long-range game they might not be able to go to or some other reason. I’d say it would be a media person (who would surpass 500 straight), if it would be anybody.”
Johnson said building his personal streak was not a conscious effort. “Not at all,” Johnson said. “You never expect that to happen. Up at Kansas (in 2011), I hit 400 and I never thought much about it after that. I’m really grateful. I’ve really enjoyed it and I’m proud that I was able to hang in there and not do something really stupid and be sent down the road, or have health problems.”
Making the OU streak particularly impressive, Johnson has worked while overcoming personal tragedies:
- In late August 2000, his youngest daughter, Jill Foster, was killed in a car accident near Pryor at age 29. Six days later, Johnson worked the Sooners’ season opener against UTEP.
- When the Sooners played at Notre Dame in 2013, Johnson’s wife of 53 years, Cindy, suffered a stroke in their home. Johnson spent the week with Cindy, their son and their daughter at the hospital. Johnson didn’t want to leave her side to broadcast the TCU game that Saturday in Norman, but his children persuaded him to go. “I felt a little bit guilty about doing it, but they insisted,” Johnson said at the time. Cindy was removed from life support the morning of the game and died the next day.
From the sideline to the booth, Merv Johnson has been a fixture of OU football for 61 years.
From 1958-2016, Johnson was a football staff member for 59 consecutive college seasons, 703 total games and served under seven head coaches. Those teams combined for an overall record of 516-175-12 (.743) and claimed four national championships at Arkansas in 1964, at Notre Dame in 1977 and at OU in 1985 and 2000.
Johnson has spent the last 61 uninterrupted seasons being involved in college football with stints at Arkansas (1958-59 and 1962-74), Missouri (1960-61), Notre Dame (1975-78) and OU (1979-present). He has faced no team more frequently than the Texas Longhorns (59 times).
After serving on the staff for Sooners head coach Howard Schnellenberger in 1995 (5-5-1) and John Blake from 1996-98 (12-22-0), Johnson figured his days at OU likely had come to an end given the state of the program.
“I knew I never would be a head coach at that age (62),” Johnson said. “And at the rate things were going, I wasn’t going to be an assistant either so I figured I better just shut up and keep on going down the road.”
Incoming coach Bob Stoops and athletics director Joe Castiglione saw immeasurable value in having Johnson remain on staff and retained him as director of football operations.
“Goodness gracious, at the time I went out of coaching I wasn’t having very much fun and really didn’t expect to survive here,” Johnson said. “You’d never expect a coach to come in here with the program down like it was when coach Stoops got here and have all the success he had (claiming the 2000 national title and 18 bowl appearances in 18 seasons). That would never happen in many places. He and the athletics director have been so good to me.”
(Coincidentally, Johnson’s first game as an OU assistant was Sept. 25, 1979, against the visiting Iowa Hawkeyes and a freshman defensive back named Bob Stoops.)
Born 10 miles outside King City, Mo., Johnson had a small-town upbringing and went to a one-room country school before attending high school in town. He has maintained a humble demeanor his entire life and retains it in the broadcast booth.
“He has had a big impact on this program,” Castiglione said when Johnson retired early last year. “He just went about it in a very humble way, but do not underestimate his competitiveness or toughness by getting caught up in that great attribute of humility. You see that consistently calm demeanor and you mistake that for not being ultra-competitive.”
Johnson was presented the Bill Teegins Award for excellence in sports broadcasting in 2012. “I’ve tried to not break any rules or do anything stupid on the air,” Johnson said with a laugh. “Sometimes you feel like you did something stupid, but you don’t do it on purpose. So far, so good.”
Johnson received the Bill Teegins Award for excellence in sports broadcasting in 2012.
Toby Rowland is about to finish his eighth season as the Sooners’ play-by-play voice and marvels at Johnson’s reputation.
“I don’t know anybody who is as universally liked as Merv Johnson,” Rowland said. “I have never met a single person anywhere, at OU or beyond, who doesn’t have anything but glowing words for the man. They don’t just like him, they love him. They absolutely love him.”
Johnson’s notoriety spans the college football landscape.
“He is a legend in South Bend,” Rowland said of Johnson, who served as offensive coordinator with the Fighting Irish. “It seems like everywhere we go whether it’s broadcasters, opposing coaches or opposing athletic directors who stop by the booth he knows everyone and everyone thinks the world of him, and that’s how we think of him. It’s cool to see everyone feels that way. He’s accomplished so much in his life and is so revered across the country.”
Rowland’s first two seasons with Johnson were as a sideline reporter before replacing legendary play-by-play man Bob Barry Sr., who died in 2011. The relationship between Rowland and Johnson clicked from the beginning.
“I don’t know anybody who is as universally liked as Merv Johnson. I have never met a single person anywhere, at OU or beyond, who doesn’t have anything but glowing words for the man.”
– Toby Rowland
Asked what impresses him most about Johnson, Rowland said, “It’s his genuine kindness. He’s a brilliant football mind. He is a great analyst of the game and obviously was a great coach. But he’s one of the most genuinely kind people I’ve ever met in my life. In his heart of hearts, he’s just a very kind person and he treats all of us that way.”
The feeling is mutual.
“Toby is great. I’m telling you, he really is,” Johnson said. “He treats people the right way, he’s very smart and he’s usually ahead of everything. He’s got it figured out. It’s fun to be up there with him.”
Rowland often refers to Johnson as an “icon.” When informed of this, Johnson chuckled and said, “I don’t think that’s quite the appropriate word. I happened to be at the right place at the right time, how about we say that?”
Though Johnson admits he misses coaching, his role as analyst allows him to publicly share his vast knowledge.
“Not having an actual assignment coaching on the field, I think it frees me up to say a little bit more what I think,” Johnson said. “People tend to like that.”
When mistakes are made on the football field, Johnson will calmly and objectively critique the Sooners. “He’s able to criticize in ways that are tactful and professional,” Rowland said. “Nobody can argue with him. First, because he’s Merv Johnson and also because he’s right.”
On numerous occasions, either immediately before the next play or coming out of commercial break, Rowland will ask Johnson what play he would call or what adjustments he would make.
“And it’s amazing how many times he’s dead-on,” Rowland said. “That gives us knowledge in our booth that just can’t be matched in our level of football.”
After decades as a coach, Johnson said he has been careful to stay in his own lane the past 20 years since switching roles. “I’ve never tried to tell the coaches what they need to do or what they ought to do,” Johnson said. “If they come to me and ask, What do you think about this?’ or Would this be better?’ I try to talk with them a little bit, but I’m sure not going to grab them and bring it up. That’s their deal.”
Johnson has been attached to the OU football program for parts of five decades and is about to finish his 40th season with the Sooners. Saturday will mark his 11th appearance at an Orange Bowl one with Missouri and his 10th with OU.
“You don’t ever know how much longer you’re going to be able to act like you know what you’re talking about, things like that,” Johnson said. “I’ve been pretty doggone fortunate.”