College Sports

MSU's Johnson prepares for homecoming

Perhaps it's fitting for Ellis Johnson to come to Columbia Saturday.

That way, all the people from across the state that he's impacted in a lifetime of coaching defense will have about the same distance to go to see him.

"I don't know if you're ever excited about going into Williams-Brice Stadium," Johnson joked, a few days before traveling with Mississippi State to visit No. 16 South Carolina. "But I have a lot of family in that area. I still consider that home."

Johnson, the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator, will get his homecoming the same weekend the Gamecocks celebrate theirs. A Winnsboro native who played at The Citadel and coached high school and college ball in the state, Johnson warmly remembers his South Carolina roots.

And the local area remembers him. Northwestern High School coach Jimmy Wallace and South Pointe coach Bobby Carroll each recalled Johnson and the effect he had on their teams.

"When you say the word 'defense' in the state of South Carolina, it's synonymous with coach Johnson," Carroll said. "Unbelievable ... lot of coverages, lot of stunts. He was phenomenal with it."

Johnson coached one year at The Citadel after graduating and moved on to Gaffney High School, where he stayed three years. Taking over a team that had gone 0-10 the year before, Johnson guided the Indians to records of 4-6, 6-4 and 11-1 before he left.

He moved on to Spartanburg High School for three years before breaking into the college ranks. Coaching in the I-85 corridor never left him, though.

"I would give a million dollars for that conference," Johnson said. "Really a tough, tough conference."

"The thing that sticks in my mind was he always loved to help," Wallace said. "He's a super friend, done really well for himself. He's a great football coach."

Johnson went back to The Citadel after Spartanburg and began the vagabond coaching trip, stopping at Gardner-Webb, Appalachian State, East Carolina, Southern Mississippi, Alabama (twice) and Clemson. He's spent the last three years at Mississippi State.

He won't get to visit much with friends and family due to the Bulldogs' schedule -- they'll pull into the stadium about two hours before kickoff and leave an hour afterward. But his wife, Caroline, and their three children left earlier this week for Columbia to visit relatives.

Still, the inroads he made when he was in South Carolina could have a lot of familiar faces watching him from the stands Saturday. Wallace and Carroll don't know if they'll be able to attend -- they have their own seasons to attend to, after all -- but said they'll be there in spirit.

Each coach recalled a time when they were each at Northwestern. Johnson stopped by on a recruiting visit and stayed, at his expense, to help the Trojans' football clinic.

"He sat down with us and clinicked with us for five hours one afternoon," Carroll said. "He's that loyal to football."

Johnson may also be making some trips later this season or during the winter for recruiting. Mississippi State was looking at Strom Thurmond's Aramis Hillary before Hillary committed to USC last week, and although the Bulldogs don't recruit heavily in South Carolina, Johnson knows all about the state's athletes.

"I think South Carolina high school football, minus the population factor, is as fine as I've seen across the nation," Johnson said. "It is so well-coached."