Long before he made his last and lasting stop as the Eagles' defensive coordinator, Johnson got his NFL start with the Cardinals in 1986. He was the defensive line coach for four seasons before moving to the secondary. It was in that role that Johnson developed his first superstar.
Before there was Brian Dawkins there was Aeneas Williams.
"He meant a lot to me," said Williams, an eight-time pro bowl cornerback. "Coach Johnson was in Phoenix when the Cardinals drafted me in the third round. He was the guy after I held out two weeks that let me know I'd be the starting cornerback my rookie year."
Under Johnson's supervision, Williams, who had played only one season of college football at Southern, went on to become the first rookie cornerback to lead the league in interceptions since 1981. Johnson left Arizona for Indianapolis three years later, but Williams never forgot the lessons he learned from his first position coach.
"Every time I think of Coach Johnson, I keep thinking of a guy who held you accountable," said Williams, who retired from football in 2005.
Williams said he didn't really keep in touch with Johnson after their separation, but he did see him a few times when the Eagles' staff coached at the Pro Bowl. On one occasion, he had a conversation with then-Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent and then-Eagles assistant Steve Spagnuolo.
They "would tell me that he used to use me as a model when communicating about what he wanted done," Williams said. "Sometimes you get compliments and say thank you. But when a coach references you like that, it's the highest compliment."
After three seasons with the Colts, and then a year in Seattle, Johnson was hired by the Eagles when a little- known Green Bay offensive assistant brought an even lesser-known defensive assistant to Philadelphia to be his defensive coordinator. It was a near ideal match. Andy Reid liked to pass and Johnson loved to blitz.
By the time Johnson came to the Eagles he had perfected a scheme that was designed to pressure the quarterback. That meant throwing a variety of blitzes - many disguised - at an offensive line.
"There are a few coaches that I really respect; he certainly is one of them," said New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan. "The way he mixes up with his schemes and brings pressures. He did a lot of my dad's [former Eagles head coach Buddy Ryan] stuff and mixed it up. . . . Any time you do something well, people are going to try to copy it. But the original guy, the innovator, is always the best."
Johnson left many acolytes that would go on to fill some of the top coaching jobs in the NFL.
"He had a special ability to bring out the best in people while getting you to see the best in yourself," said John Harbaugh, who was with the Eagles for 10 seasons before taking over as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. "He saw potential and developed it. He made me believe I could coach at this level."
Said new Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo: "Jim meant the world to me, both personally and professionally."
Ron Rivera, now the Chargers' defensive coordinator, remembered it was Johnson who taught him how to script plays when he was the linebackers coach with the Eagles. If he made a mistake, Johnson would tell him and then he would tell him why he made the mistake.
"Jim was hard on us," Rivera said. "I remember just after I was hired in Philadelphia, I had just finished signing my contract and he walked into my office and closed the door. 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.' "
Johnson was gruff with his players, too, but they knew he loved them.
"You understood where Jim was coming from," said Corey Simon, a former Eagles defensive tackle. "Once the game was over, one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. His passion was what made that defense great. We went out and played with the heart and desire that Jim gave us."
Contact staff writer Jeff McLane
at 215-854-4745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff writer Mike Jensen contributed to this article.