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Coach Makes Some Sense Out of Those Xs and O's : He's the Unofficial 'Ambassador' of American Football

December 20, 1987|PAUL McLEOD | Times Staff Writer

A football game looks as subtle as a car crash--and a bit less interesting.

--John L. Johnson

"How to Watch Football"

John Johnson wanted to write "How to Watch Football" for the uninitiated male.

By the time it was published four years ago, the Cal State Dominguez Hills instructor and coach realized that women--not men--were showing more of an interest in learning about the sport.

In a class he teaches on the techniques of football, his once all-male audience of armchair quarterbacks now consists of a 50-50 mix of both sexes.

Change is something the "Ol' Coach" of Dominguez Hills has learned to enjoy.

"To survive in modern football, you have to be one of the new breed or you don't last," he said.

His international knowledge is exhausting and may make him the unofficial ambassador of American football, even though Johnson and his book are not household names in this country. Currently in its second printing, "How to Watch Football" now aims for the oversees market, where Johnson says American football fever is just beginning.

"I envision a world cup for (American) football someday," he said.

A former football player and coach at UCLA, Johnson is a member of the Hula Bowl committee and helped found the Japan Bowl all-star game, which is played each year in Tokyo by American college all-stars.

Earlier this fall he toured Europe with former Rams Coach Ray Malavasi as a coach of an Australian football team that played American-style football. In January he'll return to Australia to coach in a football series down under. This summer he'll coach in Holland.

According to Johnson, there are 433 football teams playing American-style football in Japan, 600 in Europe, 200 in England and "about 50 in Australia."

"It's amazing how the sport has grown," he said.

Johnson spent more than 20 years as a scout for numerous professional football teams in this country. He once worked for Vince Lombardi.

A linebacker and running back from Bakersfield, he was voted the most valuable player of the first Hula Bowl and he served as an assistant under the legendary coach, Red Sanders, at UCLA.

Ironically, he makes a home now at Dominguez Hills, a school that does not field a football team.

A hard-fought contest is a match of finesse, guts and strategy.

The yellow tennis shorts and striped short-sleeve shirt that Johnson is wearing do not seem like much protection from the incessant wind that howls across the Dominguez Hills tennis courts in the afternoon.

But Johnson, in the midst of a tennis class, is not cold. He's been at the school 20 years and the biting breeze has become an old friend.

"You get used to it," he said.

Johnson fancies himself a pioneer. Soon after earning his doctorate in education at UCLA, he accepted the position of division chair and athletic director at a fledgling state college that served 600 students in a vacant commercial building on Victoria Avenue in Carson.

"I saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor," he said.

In 1968 he founded the first intercollegiate athletic team (golf) at Dominguez Hills. He installed himself as its coach and he has held the job ever since.

Dominguez Hills now has 8,000 students and Division II status. Football, however, was never part of the original master plan for athletics, he said, and it most likely never will be.

"We can't compete for fans. This is Southern California," he said. "Too many schools are dropping football now and it costs so much to have a team."

However, exhibiting the enthusiasm he is known for around the school, Johnson says: "The future here is unlimited. This is an exciting place to be."

Bouncing a soggy tennis ball on an asphalt walkway, Johnson talks about his upcoming golf team. His gray hair barely moves in the whistling wind. He uses words like fiery , outstanding potential and tough to describe players on the team.

"When the goin' gets tough, Mike gets goin'," he says of one player expected to perform well this year.

On collegiate golfers he later says: "If you have to coach them by the time they get to this level, you're in trouble." Johnson confesses that a "bad back swing" has hampered his golf game, but as golf coach he remains busy.

"People think I have an easy job, but coaching golf takes more time than coaching football." He says there is little difference between finesse on the football field or at the first tee.

What the novice sees as a 22-man pile-up is actually an intricately designed, coordinated movement of players, the culmination of months of practice and planning.

Later that day, sitting in his third-floor office of the Humanities and Fine Arts Building, Johnson notes that he has adapted to new styles and theories of coaching.

"I have embodied all the modern theories of coaching: I try to stay in shape. I still have enthusiasm and I think I have kept current."

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