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.”
So Johnson moved and found a home.
The irony, of course, is that Johnson never got the head coaching opportunity anywhere. Never a good offer from elsewhere, and when Switzer was forced out in June 1989, OU hired fellow assistant Gary Gibbs instead.
Further irony: Notre Dame relaxed its policy. When Devine retired, the Irish hired a head coach all right — a high school head coach, Gerry Faust of Cincinnati Moeller. Eventually, Notre hired assistants with no head coaching experience — Bob Davie in 1997, Charlie Weis in 2005.
But Johnson never has expressed bitterness and still talks glowingly about his Notre Dame years, 1975-78.
Johnson helped get Rudy Ruettiger on the field, which led to the famed movie, “Rudy,” about a walkon's desire to play for Notre Dame.
Much of the movie was accurate, Johnson said, except the player revolt that demanded Rudy get to dress out. In reality, a couple of freshmen who knew they wouldn't get to play that day anyway came to Johnson and asked if Rudy could take their spot on the squad for the season finale against Georgia Tech.
Johnson went to Devine, who agreed, and Rudy got in at the end of the game.
Johnson and Ruettiger remain friends to this day. When Ruettiger makes an Oklahoma appearance — he's a frequent public speaker — Johnson always introduces him.
Johnson spent just four years at Notre Dame but says there is a “reverent mystique about it. Those old great players, those old great teams are absolutely legendary. They've done a pretty good job of hanging on to it.”
The Irish did not do so good a job of hanging onto a quality coach and a quality man. Merv Johnson became a Sooner. The Sooners thank you, Notre Dame.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.