Mike Johnson, left, leaves the 49ers to join UCLA's football staff… (Photos by Jeff Chiu / Associated…)
UCLA made dramatic changes to its football coaching staff Saturday, firing Norm Chow as offensive coordinator and hiring Mike Johnson to replace him.
Chow, 64, was hired as offensive coordinator at Utah on Saturday afternoon. He chose to negotiate a buyout to a contract extension that would have paid him $1 million over the next two seasons rather than remain at UCLA and be demoted to a lesser coaching position.
"We reached a mutual agreement on terms of separation. The agreement allowed for a smooth transition that was satisfactory for both parties and amicable," UCLA spokesman Marc Dellins said.
The change came, Coach Rick Neuheisel said at a news conference, because "sometimes the chemistry isn't exactly right. Dysfunction may be too strong of a word. But when you're not functioning at the highest level, it leaks down into the program. It wasn't anybody's fault, and it was correctable."
After Chow was hired at Utah, Neuheisel, in a prepared statement, said, "Norm is a fine man and an outstanding coach and I have enjoyed working with him."
Chow did not respond to telephone calls or text messages from The Times, although he did tell the Associated Press, "I am awfully excited to be going back to my alma mater. The University of Utah is where I started my career. I met my wife there. How many people get to go back to their alma mater? This is an exciting day for me."
Neuheisel will continue to reshape the staff. He will interview former Miami coach Randy Shannon for the defensive coordinator position Sunday, according to a person inside the UCLA football program. Neuheisel said more staff changes could come.
"I'm working to try to put back together what I think will be a formidable staff, one that will communicate well with the players," said Neuheisel, who has a 15-22 record in three seasons at UCLA.
Neuheisel added that it will be a staff that "will check egos at the door." Asked whether that was a problem with Chow, Neuheisel said, "No. I think it's important when we leave that room we're united, and we can do better."
Utah is familiar territory for Chow, who spent 27 seasons as an assistant at Brigham Young, 18 as offensive coordinator. Chow and the Bruins will cross paths next season. Utah joins the Pacific 12 Conference and the two teams play Nov. 12 in Salt Lake City.
Neuheisel, who has two years remaining on his contract, and the Bruins have not finished higher than eighth in conference play during his first three seasons. With his future at UCLA possibly in the balance, Neuheisel said, "I felt it was necessary for me to be more involved in the day-to-day operation of the offense."
Neuheisel reached out to someone he knew to share those duties. Johnson, 43, and Neuheisel were assistants with the Baltimore Ravens in 2006 and 2007. Johnson also coached in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons and San Diego Chargers. He was an assistant at Oregon State when Neuheisel was the coach at Washington.
"I admired how he recruited Los Angeles," Neuheisel said. "When Oregon State played in the Fiesta Bowl, 16 of its 22 starters were Mike Johnson recruits."
Johnson will work with the wide receivers and Neuheisel will coach the quarterbacks.
UCLA ranked 116th out of 120 teams nationally in passing yardage and 118th in passing efficiency. The Bruins will overhaul their offense, using only elements of the "pistol" offense that was installed last spring.
"Our main goal is improving the passing game," Johnson said.
Neuheisel said that the new hire "has taken longer than any of us would have liked," but felt that it "will be a winning combination."
That was the spin three years ago, when Neuheisel hired Chow, who has had three quarterbacks win Heisman Trophy awards. But the Bruins failed to flourish, as injuries and a lack of talent hampered the offense.
Chow was the object of a tug-a-war between UCLA and USC a year ago after his representative was contacted by USC. Chow, who was offensive coordinator at USC from 2001 to 2004, remained at UCLA after being assured he would receive a contract extension.
That extension became a millstone for UCLA after Chow's position became tenuous.
It was clear even before the season ended that his time was short. Neuheisel passed on every opportunity to commit to bringing Chow back.