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John L. Johnson makes old news at Dominguez Hills

At 88, the Cal State Dominguez Hills golf coach is believed to be the oldest coach in college sports. And he's still going strong.

February 23, 2009|JERRY CROWE

At Cal State Dominguez Hills, Dr. J is not a skywalking, highlight-producing former NBA legend.

He is a grounded, silver-haired workaday coach who says proudly that he probably will die on the job.

"I'm the poor man's Joe Paterno," says John L. Johnson, whose doctorate in education and administration from UCLA spawned his Dr. J nickname. "I started coaching when Joe Paterno was still a skinny-legged quarterback at Brown."

That was in 1949.

Sixty years later, the former UCLA football player is still coaching. Johnson, 88, coaches the golf team at Dominguez Hills, a position he has held since forming the team in 1968.

School officials believe that the former athletic director and longtime NFL scout is the oldest coach in college sports, but it's more than longevity that sets Johnson apart from other, more recognizable Southland sports personalities.

Though old enough to have played with Jackie Robinson, coached with Red Sanders and won acclaim as the most valuable player in the first Hula Bowl, Johnson shows no sign of slowing down and is so clearheaded and energetic that few who meet him for the first time would accurately guess his age.

"Do I have to tell you that?" he asks a visitor, laughing. "They find out how old I am, they might fire me."

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Calling Johnson "our John Wooden" and "a legendary guy," Athletic Director Patrick Guillen says, "As long as he feels that he can keep going, I'm going to support him. He's still effective and he's very passionate about what he does."

Guillen is more concerned that Johnson has not been voted into UCLA's athletic hall of fame, a slight he calls "a travesty."

Says Guillen of Johnson, who postponed hip-replacement surgery a few years ago so as not to interrupt his streak of never having taken a sick day, "He's not a big name, but do you have to be a big name? There's so much history there."

A Bakersfield native, Johnson arrived at UCLA in 1939, nearly a decade before Wooden. A year later, the fullback-linebacker squared off in practice against Robinson.

"I scrimmaged against him every day," Johnson says, "and I haven't tackled him yet. He was a great running back, unbelievable.

"You know, baseball was his worst sport."

Earlier, Johnson unhappily encountered another great Bruins running back of that era, Kenny Washington.

In the spring game of 1940, Johnson remembers, Washington was headed straight toward him "and I figured, this is my claim to fame, my chance to become famous at UCLA. I'm going to stop Kenny Washington for no gain. He dropped that shoulder and hit me, and I was out for six weeks with a separated shoulder."

Laughing, Johnson says modestly that he wasn't much of a player at 5 feet 10 and 180 pounds.

"I wasn't big," he says, "but I was slow."

Actually, after serving as an airship pilot "chasing Nazi submarines in the South Atlantic" during World War II, Johnson was good enough to be a starting linebacker for a Bruins team that was 10-0 in 1946, won the Pacific Coast Conference championship and was ranked fourth before losing to Illinois in the Rose Bowl.

After that, Johnson and several other UCLA seniors were invited to the inaugural Hula Bowl in Hawaii, where Johnson scored two touchdowns and was named MVP, leading to a rich-for-its-day $3,000 contract and the offer of a tryout from the Baltimore Colts.

Cut six weeks into camp, Johnson was devastated.

"I thought my life was over," says Johnson, who has no children and was only briefly married. "But it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me because I went back to UCLA, got into graduate school and got two more degrees."

In 1949, Johnson launched his coaching career as a graduate assistant under Sanders, who guided the Bruins to a 9-0 record and the school's only football national title five years later. Johnson coached the defensive backs during the championship season, when the Bruins gave up only 40 points and shut out five opponents.

Sanders also sparked Johnson's interest in golf.

"He built a sand trap on the practice field at UCLA," says Johnson, whose Dominguez Hills teams have finished as high as seventh nationally. "He was an avid golfer."

Johnson coached football at UCLA for 16 years. Later, he was an NFL scout for 25 years, keeping tabs on college players for the Vince Lombardi-era Green Bay Packers -- "the most intense man I ever met," he says of Lombardi -- and several other teams. He coached clinics and barnstorming teams all over the world.

In 1968, starting from scratch, he launched the Cal State Dominguez Hills athletic program -- and never left.

"I wouldn't do anything else," Johnson says. "I've had some great experiences. I've got some great memories."


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