SALT LAKE CITY — Things were strangely familiar, Tuesday, for the University of Utah football team. Brian Johnson was there with the other quarterbacks, directing the attack and generally acting like he owns the place.
Which, in a way, he does.
After all, Utah is not just his house, but his home. It's been that way since he was 16. Thereafter, he's mostly just been moving in.
The only difference is that now he's outside the yard lines, not inside.
The former Ute quarterback and Sugar Bowl MVP was hard at work with the team Tuesday afternoon, his first on-field day as the team's quarterbacks coach. Just over his shoulder at the Eccles Field House hung the banner from the 2009 Sugar Bowl, a game in which Johnson was at his crafty best.
Now all he has to do is get the current quarterbacks to what he did — be almost perfect through 13 games.
The Utes opened spring drills under stormy skies — literally, not figuratively — though they did finish a disappointing third last year in the conference. (They did, however, manage a Poinsettia Bowl victory to end on a high note.) Rain kept them from practicing outside, so they took it indoors, where both Sugar Bowl and Fiesta Bowl banners hang. It was business as usual on First Day: a hard workout followed by a lot of talk about, well, hard work.
For Johnson, it was a considerable change of angles. Instead of standing behind center, he's standing on the sidelines. Instead of sweating, he's making people sweat.
Same deal, different view, right?
"I think you never reach that point of gratification, that camaraderie, hanging out with the guys — that's something you never really can duplicate," he said. "That's a once in a lifetime opportunity, to play college football."
Speaking of opportunities, Johnson has a big one. At just 23 (his birthday was last month), he's a full-time college assistant coach. After spending 2009 trying to hook up with pro teams in three leagues, he wound up back at Utah, which is like pairing Vanilla Bean ice cream with chocolate sauce.
"I wouldn't rather be anyplace in the world than here, being around the program I love," he said.
The transition from player to coach isn't always (ever?) easy. It's a bit like watching the Food Channel. Everyone wishes they were doing the cooking, not watching.
"You'll never do anything like that again, even in the professional ranks, it's not the same. ... it's stuff you can't replicate coaching," he said. "But I do think it's about the closest thing you can get to it, without actually doing it."
Johnson was arguably the greatest clutch quarterback in Utah history. His 26 wins are more than any other. But to say he was the best is debatable. This is also the program that produced Alex Smith, the former No. 1 draft pick, who led Utah to an undefeated season in 2004. Other fine or good former Utah quarterbacks include NFL starter Scott Mitchell and All-America Lee Grosscup, as well as Mike McCoy, Frank Dolce, Brett Ratliff, Randy Gomez and Larry Egger.
Johnson didn't have a great arm, in part because it got injured his sophomore year. He also sat out a year with knee troubles. Early in his career he tended to scramble too readily and fumble. Sometimes his passes were hazardously long and short in the same game.
But by the time he was a senior, he had become unbeatable in big games — and little ones, too.
Johnson had one big thing going for him all along: cool. He kept it permanently on hand, like a drivers license or cell phone. He once said he didn't worry much about negative press if he threw an interception, because the next week he'd have the chance to throw the winning pass — and the media would follow along.
Some athletes never figure out that formula.
In spring 2009, Johnson went undrafted and was subsequently passed by the CFL. He was signed by the New York Sentinels of the United Football League, but released a month later. A coaching opening occurred this winter when cornerbacks coach J.D. Williams took a job at UNLV.
At age 22 (he turned 23 last month), he was on his career path, which — who knows? — might someday end up with him becoming Utah's head coach.
"I would love to be here forever," he said. "This is the place that has been absolutely tremendous to me — not only the university but the community, as well. This is officially home for me now."
Seven years after enrolling, it's safe to say he can finally and fully unpack.