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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

/articleid/3721993/1/pictures/1865627">Photo - Oklahoma's Merv Johnson. Photo from The Oklahoman Archives
Oklahoma's Merv Johnson. Photo from The Oklahoman Archives

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 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


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