College Sports

USC picks up new coordinator after departure of new coordinator

COLUMBIA -- Steve Spurrier decided to give the same way he was taken.

Hours after being informed that newly hired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder had changed his mind and was returning to the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday, Spurrier announced VanGorder's replacement. He said he'd come to terms with Winnsboro native Ellis Johnson, Mississippi State's defensive coordinator last season.

Johnson accepted the same position at Arkansas on Dec. 31. But just like VanGorder accepting and changing his mind, Johnson informed Razorbacks coach Bobby Petrino -- who as the Falcons' head coach, bolted for Arkansas with three games left in the regular season last year, thus beginning VanGorder's search for a new job -- that he likewise had had a change of heart.

At the end of the day Thursday, it was a vicious circle that gave the Falcons and Gamecocks what they wanted, with the Razorbacks holding an empty bag. Johnson, who was originally contacted by Spurrier while at MSU but never offered the job, accepted almost as soon as he picked up the phone in his new office in Arkansas.

"I was real happy when he called this morning," Johnson said on a teleconference. "It's obviously a great situation for me."

"You might say, 'Why didn't you hire Ellis the first time?', and the answer is I really should have," Spurrier said. "I think he'll tell you he had a goal to come back to South Carolina. It's happening now."

The hiring completed a whirlwind 24 hours and solved -- again -- the Gamecocks' search for a new defensive head. USC finished a 6-6 tailspin in November with the SEC's worst rushing defense.

Coordinator Tyrone Nix left for the same post at Ole Miss under new coach Houston Nutt, who resigned from Arkansas. Spurrier acted quickly, hiring VanGorder, the Falcons' linebackers coach.

Petrino convinced Johnson to take the coordinator post at Arkansas just before the new year, and Thursday, the Falcons officially announced former Jacksonville Jaguars assistant Mike Smith to replace Petrino. Smith, who had worked with VanGorder in Jacksonville, asked VanGorder to stay on with a promotion to defensive coordinator.

VanGorder, although he said he intended to stay in college for the rest of his career, accepted. He said when he was hired at USC that he had planned to remain in the NFL -- at that time, he was on his fifth job in four years -- because his family wasn't happy with the constant moving.

But when Petrino left, the NFL wasn't a promising option. So VanGorder took the USC job and declared his intention to stay in the college game.

Until Smith called.

By staying in Atlanta, VanGorder didn't have to uproot his wife and five children, although it left the Gamecocks hanging. But Spurrier contacted Johnson, who has a lifelong connection with the state and whose wife, Caroline, is from Columbia, to fill the position.

"Hopefully, at the end of the day, everyone's happy," Spurrier said. "Arkansas may not be too happy right now ... I think we got a top-notch defensive coordinator, one of the best in the country."

Johnson attended the former Winnsboro High School (now Fairfield Central) and graduated from The Citadel in 1975. He worked one year as defensive ends coach at his alma mater before moving on to head coaching positions at Gaffney and Spartanburg high schools.

After another stop at The Citadel as linebackers coach, Johnson was head coach at Gardner-Webb for a year before moving on to Appalachian State, where he spent 1984 as defensive coordinator. He served at East Carolina, Southern Miss and Alabama before 1994, when he hired on under Tommy West at Clemson.

Johnson spent three seasons with the Tigers before returning to Alabama, staying until 2000, when he was hired as head coach at The Citadel. He left in 2003 for Mississippi State and had been there until Arkansas, then USC, called.

The Bulldogs finished fifth in the SEC in total defense (seventh in rushing defense) last year as they climbed to respectability. They beat UCF 10-3 in the Liberty Bowl, holding Knights tailback Kevin Smith to 119 yards, almost 70 below his average.

Johnson's moved around as much as VanGorder. But unlike the guy he's replacing, Johnson has a lifelong relationship with the state and said he was hoping to stay with the Gamecocks for a while.

"It's a very volatile profession," Johnson said. "Hopefully, this will be my last stop."

Neither Johnson nor VanGorder had signed a contract with their newest schools before Thursday's announcements. Spurrier said Johnson would receive a three-year deal.

"Sometimes we make mistakes, and sometimes they have a way of working themselves out," Spurrier said. "I think we're all happy how things have worked out for everyone."

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