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Rivera remembers Jim Johnson first and foremost as a teacher

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    Jim Johnson

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Updated Oct. 06, 2010 @ 7:27 p.m.
By Eric Edholm

Caught up with Chargers defensive coordinator Ron Rivera last night, who obviously was very sad to hear about the passing of Jim Johnson, his old mentor. Rivera had spent his first few seasons in the league under Dave Wannstadt as a quality-control coach, but he joined Andy Reid’s first coaching staff in Philadelphia as a linebackers coach under Johnson’s watch.

Although Rivera had played the position for nine years in the pros, Johnson had a wealth of knowledge to share, having coached at just about every level of football (college, NFL, USFL) and just about every position on defense. Rivera knew he was going to soak up a lot from his new boss — he just had no idea how much.

“It was the week I had just taken the job [with the Eagles] and I had just gotten settled in my new office and Jim came in and closed the door and said to me, ‘Now listen. I am an old linebackers coach. I have ideas of how I want things done. Don’t get upset or all bent out of shape if I come in and take over your meeting, take over your drill. It’s nothing personal — it’s how I see things, how I want them. I want you to learn from this process.’

“And he said, ‘I am going to be on you real hard.’ It was kind of refreshing that he did it that way. And he used some colorful language, too. One of his favorite saying was, ‘You got to take it like water off a duck’s back.’ And that was it. That’s how he was,” Rivera said.

Rivera learned quickly what it would take to coach under Johnson. Every day was a learning process. Slowly, as Rivera grew as a coach and became more comfortable with the system, Johnson would let him script plays and put together a defensive gameplan. It clearly worked. Rivera became the Bears' defensive coordinator in 2005 and helped lead them to a Super Bowl the following season. He has interviewed for nine head-coaching jobs, and I believe he'll get one after this season.

“Going into my fourth year there, he let me script the team periods and the blitz periods,” Rivera said. “We’d talk about it. ‘This is what you want to do, this is what you want to call, this is how you put it together.’ He pretty much did the gameplans, but I would put it together and we’d go through why he wanted to do those things. It really taught me how to put together a gameplan, how to script a practice — things you’re going to need if you’re going to be a coordinator.”

This might sound like standard practice, but it’s not always this way on every team. Some coaches just make the calls, ask their assistants to follow in line and don’t do any teaching. The NFL is an ego league, and some coaches don’t want to teach or be taught. It’s also a league that offers very little job security, so some veteran coaches take the insecure approach that the coach I teach today could be the guy who takes my job tomorrow or down the road.

Not Johnson. He taught Rivera, Leslie Frazier, Steve Spagnuolo, John Harbaugh and Sean McDermott, among others.

“He didn’t pretend to have everything figured out, but he’d give you his opinion. People can talk about giving coaches opportunities and things like that, but he really taught me. I’ll always be grateful to him for taking the time to teach me and mentor me.”

Rivera left the Eagles in 2003 to take the Bears’ defensive coordinator position but remained close to Johnson, speaking to him as recently as six weeks ago. When the news came of his passing, Rivera and Johnson’s other protégés all called each other just to check up and see how everyone was doing.

Rivera said Johnson didn’t like the “genius” title he was afforded often and was hesitant to discuss his health since last season, when he became ill again.

“We knew he was sick last year, and we all worried about him, of course,” Rivera said. “But we didn’t really know just how sick he was until the last few months, I’d say. He just didn’t want to get into all that. He was a very giving man who was about all the people around him.”

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