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Notre Dame let a good coach, a good man get away 34 years ago — Merv Johnson

Johnson had hopes of someday coaching the Irish. But when he was told that would not happen, Johnson accepted Barry Switzer's offer to join the Sooners' coaching staff.
BY BERRY TRAMEL Published: October 24, 2012

NORMAN — Merv Johnson got Rudy on the field at Notre Dame. Called plays for a fledgling quarterback named Joe Montana. Coordinated the offense of the Irish's 1977 national championship team.

But Johnson is in his 34th season with Oklahoma football because Notre Dame was honest with him. Johnson had no shot to become the Irish's head coach.

The OU-Notre Dame rivalry resumes Saturday night at Owen Field, just the second meeting since 1968, and as always, Johnson will analyze the game for the Sooner radio network.

In many ways, Johnson is Mister Sooner. Either the assistant head coach or director of football operations since 1979. The link between the Barry Switzer and Bob Stoops years. Ten years with Switzer, now 14 years with Stoops.

But time was, Johnson aspired to be head coach at Notre Dame.

When Switzer, his old pal, offered him a job at OU after the 1978 season, Johnson paid a visit to Father Edmund Joyce, who in 1987 would retire after 35 years as Notre Dame's executive vice president.

Father Joyce was a legendary Notre Dame figure. Notre Dame's basketball arena is named in his honor.

Johnson wanted to know where he stood, so he visited Father Joyce. Irish coach Dan Devine was nearing retirement and indeed would retire after the 1980 season.

Johnson, with a great Frank Broyles pedigree and the Montana/1977 success on his resume, clearly would have been a likely successor.

Except for one thing. Joyce told Johnson that Notre Dame could not hire an assistant coach to be the head coach.

The Irish had done it with Terry Brennan in 1954 and Hunk Anderson in 1931. Neither worked out.

Devine (the Packers), Ara Parseghian, Frank Leahy (Boston College), Elmer Layden (Duquesne). They all had been head coach before.

Joyce leveled with Johnson. Notre Dame wanted him to stay. Would match Switzer's monetary offer. But Johnson wouldn't be considered for the head coaching job.

“You had to appreciate his honesty,” Johnson said this week. “Pretty much told me I could be flopping around in a couple more years, looking for a job.”

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