Dennis Johnson didn’t see it coming — the biggest break of his young career.
He was too busy, in his small cubicle, breaking down film of Missouri, LSU’s next opponent.
Sure, things had changed all around him. The school had fired head coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and promoted Ed Orgeron. The football building was abuzz. There sat Johnson, in a cubicle reserved for graduate assistants like himself, poring over Missouri’s offense.
“They had, like, the highest scoring average in the country,” Johnson said in an interview last month. “They had hung, like, 80 on somebody two weeks before. I’m in there breaking down film, looking at all that good stuff.”
He took a break, walked down the hall and bumped into the new head coach.
“Congrats!” Orgeron screamed at Johnson, giving him a playful shove. “Outside linebackers coach!”
That was it.
“He keeps walking,” Johnson said laughing about the memory now.
He repeats Orgeron’s words as if they’ll hang with him forever.
“‘Congrats! Outside linebackers coach!’” Johnson said. “He had just got the interim head job. You could see it in his eyes. He was so happy. So much joy to get his dream job. You could see it in his eyes. Not like tears, but the pure happiness. He literally just bumps me and kind of pushed me. ‘Congrats! Outside linebackers coach!’”
This wasn’t the beginning of Johnson’s ascent to his current spot as one of LSU’s nine full-time position coaches. It didn’t even complete the rare transition: a graduate assistant landing a full-time job on a major college coaching staff. That didn’t happen until athletic director Joe Alleva stripped the interim tag off Orgeron in November, making him the permanent head coach.
From position moves to new installs, from Matt Canada’s screams to Ed Orgeron’s themes, from…
Johnson’s ascent to this point really began a decade ago here in Baton Rouge, as a walk-on junior college transfer who developed into a competent backup defensive lineman. It continued last spring, when Orgeron convinced his defensive graduate assistant to turn down a full-time coaching job at another school — and a $50,000-per-year salary.
“I was kind of happy about that offer,” Johnson said. “I was happy and stuff. Honest as (Orgeron) is, I thought he was going to be like, ‘Congrats!’
“He was like, ‘Don’t take it.’”
“I was like, ‘Huh, what do you mean?’” Johnson continued. “It was, like, $50,000! I’m going! He was like, ‘Nah man. Stick with me.’ I stuck with him.”
And now here he is. The guy they call “Meatball” — a nickname he picked up for his “short and round” figure in college, he says — is overseeing LSU’s outside linebackers while being paid $180,000 per year and occupying a spacious office in LSU’s football operations building. A few months ago, he was in that cubicle, breaking down film and walking to work every day from Southgate Towers because he didn’t own a car.
“It’s been pretty exciting to say the least,” Johnson said. “Graduate assistant one day and being a full-time assistant the next.”
It’s an extremely rare move, and it’s one celebrated among the graduate assistant community. Just maybe it’ll begin happening more often for a group of guys who are overworked and underpaid, while supplying million-dollar coaches and coordinators with vital information.
The NCAA allows a school to have four graduate assistants, and none of them can remain at one school for longer than a three-year period. Their payment is similar to players. Their tuition for grad school — they must take six hours (two classes) a semester — and books are covered, and they receive a monthly check for cost of attendance for things like food, rent and gas.
At LSU, the check is about $1,900. How does one make $1,900 a month work?
“You get a wife that works, too,” laughed Eric Mateos, a former graduate assistant at Arkansas and LSU last season who is now the offensive line coach at Texas State.
Mateos referred to the four grad assistants at LSU as “the JV squad.” During the season, they are primarily responsible for running the scout team, an important venture. The scout team imitates the next opponent, preparing starters for what they’ll see on Saturdays.
In fact, it’s there, on scout team, that Orgeron and Johnson built such a close relationship. Orgeron oversaw the offensive scout team work under Miles. He bonded with Johnson while the two created what they call “cards.”
This is a common phrase among coaches. Graduate assistants scribble opponent plays on card stock with markers. These are called cards. They flash the cards to the scout team during practices so they can better understand just how to mimic the opponent.
“I remember drawing cards with him,” Johnson said of Orgeron and his card-drawing sessions.
“‘One day, I’ll be the head coach, and you’ll be my assistant,’” Johnson said Orgeron told him. “I believed him. It worked out.”
No quarterback in LSU’s starting battle has grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns just ye…
One of the many changes Orgeron made when he took over in the interim was to the scout team. This change isn't as talked about as his tweaks to practice length or him opening up drills to reporters, but the change he made to LSU’s scout team was an important alteration, Mateos said.
Most coaches, like Miles, fill their scout teams with walk-ons and freshmen reserves. Orgeron used second-string players.
“We would make cards, and you’d have Sci Martin acting like the opponent rather than a walk-on,” Mateos said of LSU’s second-string edge rusher last year. “The competition during practice elevated. Most places, the look on the show team is not realistic because at the end of the day you can’t simulate (Texas A&M's standout defensive lineman) Myles Garrett with a walk-on. You’re trying to get your worst players on your team to act like your opponent.”
Coaches became more involved in scout team work, too, Mateos said. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda began showing cards at practice, and Orgeron was heavily involved, too.
Meatball and the head man grew closer and closer through the process, but Orgeron had always planned for him to remain on the staff in a permanent role.
“Tremendously loyal to me,” Orgeron said. “He used to walk through the rain to work. I remember one Saturday morning I couldn’t come and had some recruits that called. He walked in the rain to open the door (of the football facility). Showed them all around. Didn’t say a word about it.”
Orgeron gave Johnson something more than a job, too. As head coach, Orgeron gets two courtesy vehicles.
“When we hired him,” Orgeron said, “I gave him keys to a brand new truck.”