BOULDER — Perhaps it was fate that someone named Denver eventually would find his way to Colorado. Denver Johnson, the head coach at Illinois State the past nine seasons has been hired as the University of Colorado’s new offensive line coach, Buffalo head coach Dan Hawkins announced Wednesday.
Johnson, 50, resigned as ISU head coach following the 2008 season, announcing the move after the Redbirds’ season-ending 17-10 loss to Southern Illinois that dropped Illinois State to 3-8. The Redbirds had winning records in five of his nine years, including a 9-4 mark in 2006, the second most wins in school history. He replaces Jeff Grimes, who left the CU staff last month for a similar position at Auburn.
“He’s very highly respected, and is a great man and a great coach,” Hawkins said. “He has experience coaching with and against Big 12 competition and has recruiting ties in the Big 12 region, especially Texas. I think he’s a great fit for our staff and for our team. When we started looking for someone, his name kept cropping up and from a lot of different sources. And even more so, he really wanted to be a Buff.”
“I am thrilled and excited to have the opportunity to come to Colorado and join coach Hawkins and his staff along with these young men,” Johnson said. “I was impressed by the vision and leadership of Hawk and this is an exciting time for Colorado football and I am glad to become part of it.
“I have been a head coach for 12 years, but I’m an offensive line coach by trade,” he added. “That’s my passion, so I am excited to be here at such a critical time and am looking forward to settling in and getting down to business.”
As a head coach, did Johnson spend much if any time with the offensive line?
“I kind of modeled myself after Frank Beamer and the Virginia Tech staff in that I took care of the special teams, but you always wind up breaking in and training several offensive line coaches, and that kept me close to the offensive line. And when I had the chance in practices, I usually migrated down to where the offensive linemen were practicing and watched.”
Johnson inherits a line with 15 returning players, 11 of whom are sophomores (eight) or freshmen and with just six who have lettered, the only six with starting experience. The lone senior is guard Devin Head, with the other starters junior tackle Nate Solder, sophomore tackles Matt Bahr and Ryan Miller, sophomore guard Blake Behrens and freshman redshirt guard Max Tuioti-Mariner, who was lost for his true freshman season after three games due to injury and is in line to regain the year in his eligibility.
“They are very much still in the developmental stage,” Johnson said of his group of linemen. “They are a young, talented, good looking bunch with some length and athletic ability. When I came out and visited, I was impressed with all aspects of the kids. It is a unique opportunity to take over a bunch that is so young.”
Johnson was the Redbirds’ head coach for nine years, the 2000 through 2008 seasons. He posted a 48-54 record, highlighted by reaching the quarterfinals of the 2006 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (I-AA) and a season-ending No. 8 national ranking. Johnson's teams produced some of the most prolific offensive campaigns in the program's history by establishing 28 offensive school records, including the most points and the most rushing, passing and total yards in a season.
His ISU teams produced 34 players who were afforded some kind of All-America honor and 62 first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference selections, including the MVC's first-ever three-time defensive player of the year, Boomer Grigsby; and the offensive and defensive players of the year in 2005 with Laurent Robinson and Brent Hawkins, respectively. During his tenure, the Redbirds also boasted the Valley Football Defensive Player of the Year for five straight seasons, from 2002-06, with Grigsby winning the honor three times, followed by Hawkins and Cameron Siskowic.
Johnson had originally joined the Illinois State staff after a three-year head coaching stint at Murray State, where he compiled a 21-12 mark. He owned a 69-66 career record in his 12 seasons as a head coach.
Johnson graduated with a degree in Business Management from the University of Tulsa in 1981. A four-year letterman at offensive tackle, he helped the Golden Hurricane to the 1976 Independence Bowl as a player and was a two-time All-Missouri Valley Conference offensive lineman under former Ohio State and Arizona State head coach John Cooper. He was also an academic all-conference pick.
He was drafted in the eighth round of the 1981 National Football League Draft by the Tampa Buccaneers, and was with the club for two seasons. He then joined the Los Angeles Express of the now-defunct United States Football League for the 1983 and 1984 seasons and wrapped up his professional career with the USFL's Houston Gamblers in 1985. His USFL playing days included playing stints with quarterbacks Jim Kelly and Steve Young, both of whom went on to stardom in the NFL.
Following the 1985 USFL season and after four years of playing professional football, he made the decision enter the coaching ranks and began his climb in the fall of ‘85 as a graduate assistant at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys went 8-4 that season, were at one time ranked as the No. 5 team in the nation and earned a spot opposite Florida State in the Gator Bowl. He traveled with OSU to Boulder that season when the Cowboys eked out a 14-11 win over Bill McCartney’s Buffaloes, which were on the rise at the time.
His first full-time coaching job came at Tennessee-Martin, where he was assistant head coach and coached the offensive line for three seasons (1986-88). His last year there, UTM featured an explosive offense and advanced to the quarterfinals in the NCAA Division II playoffs before finishing the year with an 11-2 record.
Johnson then returned to Stillwater where he would coach the offensive line for Oklahoma State for the next four seasons (1989-92), and was on the sidelines for the ’91 game when CU called perhaps its most famous trick play in its history, a fake field goal trailing 12-10 with 12 seconds remaining. With the winds howling as they often do in the plains in November, holder Robbie James completed a 20-yard pass to tight end Christian Fauria and CU won, 16-12 (missing the PAT kick into the wind).
He then joined the staff at Mississippi State where he spent the next three years, also as the offensive line mentor. The 1993 Bulldogs earned a spot in the Peach Bowl, and in 1995, Johnson was recognized as one of the top assistant coaches in the Southeastern Conference. He then returned to Oklahoma for a third time in his coaching career, but this time with the University of Oklahoma for the 1996 season.
Early in 1997, he was named head coach for Murray State. A late hiring process and the loss of several key players from the previous year's team appeared to have Johnson poised for a slow start at MSU, but that was not the case. The Racers responded with a 7-4 mark, the same record they would post in the 1998 and 1999 seasons before Johnson moved on to Illinois State. His first ISU team opened 1-4 and then caught fire, winning its last six and was one of the better teams in I-AA by the end of the year.
A native of Seminole, Okla., he is married to the former Danita Kay Powell. They have two grown daughters, Taylor and Kelsey. He collects vintage cars and guitars, has skydived and lists water skiing as one of his hobbies. Johnson's father, the late Luke Johnson, was a decorated veteran of World War II, and his mother, Claudia, still resides in Seminole, Okla., near the farm on which the family lived. Throughout his career, he has been a public speaker in high demand, as he is known for an interesting delivery style featuring home spun humor with his natural southern drawl.