WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — One would think that at age 60 and being slightly above his playing weight from his days as a defensive tackle at Neville High School in Monroe and later at Northwestern State, Saints defensive line coach Bill Johnson would appreciate having training camp in the moderate temperatures at The Greenbrier, where the high is usually about 20 degrees cooler than in New Orleans.
“I like the heat,” Johnson said after a recent practice. “It makes me feel good.
“I’m certainly not scared of it. It will ever stop me from doing whatever we have to do.”
That’s because now, more than ever, Bill Johnson loves coaching.
Or, as he likes to put it, “Football has been real good to Bill Johnson.”
Yes, it has.
It’s offered him a steady living for 35 years, starting as a graduate assistant at his college alma mater, through six college stops over 21 years, and three more stops in the NFL since 2001, Johnson has been fired only once, and that was with Jim L. Mora and the rest of the staff of the Atlanta Falcons in 2006.
That’s definitely below the norm for coaching lifers like Johnson.
And he has the trifecta of championship rings: Super Bowl with the Saints, college with Miami and high school with Neville.
“I like to wear that Super Bowl ring when I dress up,” said Johnson, who still sounds like he never left Monroe. “But I don’t dress up that much, so I just keep it in a safe.”
But despite his accomplishments Johnson said he’s never desired to be a head coach or even a coordinator, He put those ambitions aside a long time ago, suppressing ego for the practicalities of his profession, or at least the way he sees it.
“I think when you coach the D-line, your eyes don’t go in the position you need to be in to run the whole thing,” Johnson explained. “The secondary is so complex, and that’s why you see your coordinators coming from there.
“Taking care of the line is what I do best.”
Saints coach Sean Payton must feel that way too.
Although Johnson was essentially brought in by Gregg Williams and does best with a 4-3 front, he survived Bountygate and the transition to Rob Ryan’s hybrid 3-4 that is now listed as a 4-3 on the depth chart with a year working under Steve Spagnuolo in between.
Only Joe Vitt has been on the Saints defensive staff longer than Johnson.
“Bill’s a really good technician,” Payton said. “My office here is right next to his, and sometimes I’ll meander over there around 9:50 (p.m.), and he’s still teaching.
“He’s so much into the fundamentals that he’ll cut it close for bed check. But nobody’s better at teaching the details of how to play the position.”
Kevin Williams, a 13-year veteran defensive tackle in his first season with the Saints, agreed.
“Bill’s going to coach like you’re a 13-year guy or a rookie,” he said. “I’ve played under a lot of coaches, but I’ve never seen one who is so interested in making you improve so that you improve your value.”
In turn, Johnson said he’s enjoying having Williams around as a role model for his younger charges.
“What a great addition,” Johnson said. “Kevin is such a smart young man about both playing his position and being a professional.
“He’s in great condition, and his attitude and approach toward football is exactly what you’re looking for.”
Not that Johnson doesn’t like dealing with the younger players, even if he admits that, among other things, their musical tastes don’t jive with his.
That’s why he tries to tune out the team’s early practice warmup offerings, which lean towards rap.
“There’s a lot of things that go on in society now that I’m sure I wouldn’t have done at Neville High School,” he said. “But you can’t live in the past or just do things like you’ve done in the past.
“I love young people, and they’re what keep me young. Being around them is what gets me up and running every morning.”
“Running” is metaphorical there.
While his colleagues may ascribe to Payton’s CrossFit obsession or other ways to stay in shape, Johnson limits himself to walking each morning.
That, he said, is more than enough for his 60-year old legs to hold up during practice — whether at The Greenbrier or back at the team facility in Metairie.
“Age is just a number, especially when you’re a late-bloomer like I am,” Johnson said. “I married late (28), and we didn’t have kids for another six years (son Billy is in the player personnel office of the St. Louis Rams).
“I know there will be a time when this thing will end. But with your attitude, you can make it last as long as you want, and I plan on coaching for a long, long time.”
And the Saints — make that coaching profession in general — are better for that.