Auburn Football Coaching Rumors: Is It Time to Fire Ellis Johnson?


The Auburn football team allowed 539 yards to Alabama in the latest of several poor defensive performances for the Tigers.

Tonight in Tuscaloosa, Auburn lost the 79th Iron Bowl by a score of 55-44. The Crimson Tide tied a series record for most points in a game, matching the number Alabama had in a 55-0 victory in 1948. The Tigers surrendered 539 yards of total offense, including 224 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 13 catches for Amari Cooper.

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Everyone knew stopping Cooper was the key to stopping the Alabama offense, and everyone knew that Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin would feed his Heisman Trophy candidate. Yet Cooper still feasted.

And he wasn’t alone. T.J. Yeldon ran for 127 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries and Derrick Henry rumbled for 72 yards and a TD on just five attempts. Combined, the two Alabama running backs averaged 8.3 yards per carry.

Think of it this way. Auburn had 630 yards of total offense. Nick Marshall set a school record with 456 passing yards. The Tigers forced three turnovers. And Auburn still lost by two scores.

Of course, this isn’t a one-game issue.

For the first time in school history, the Auburn football team has allowed 31 or more points in six straight games against FBS and SEC opponents. They have surrendered 39 points per contest on average, and have lost four of those games and the last three, sending Auburn from an exciting 5-0 start and No. 3 ranking to an 8-4 finish to the regular season.

It’s not even a one-season issue. Despite winning the SEC and playing for the national title in 2013, Johnson’s defense ranked near the bottom of the league in every major defensive category. The Tigers allowed 162.1 rushing yards, which ranked 10th in the SEC and 62nd nationally, 258.6 passing yards (13th, 100th) and 420.7 yards of total offense (12th, 86th). The saving grace of the unit was big plays in big moments that simply didn’t happen enough in 2014.

So, it begs the question. Is it time to fire defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson?

UPDATE: Ellis Johnson Fired as Auburn Defensive Coordinator

Jan 3, 2014; Irvine, CA, USA; Auburn Tigers defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson at practice for the 2014 BCS National Championship at UC Irvine. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Personally, I’m an Ellis Johnson fan, but the idea is worth discussing.

“Ellis is one of the top defensive minds in all of college football. He is very experienced and has tremendous success coaching in the Southeastern Conference,” Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn said in a released statement when Johnson was hired. “He is a man of integrity who will be a great ambassador for Auburn. We’re very pleased to have him join our staff and bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to our program.”

Johnson has had a great career as a defensive coordinator, and he’s done it in the SEC. However, the 63-year-old came to Auburn following a disastrous 0-12, one-year tenure as the head coach at Southern Miss. Given the fact the Golden Eagles were the defending Conference USA champions, it should have raised a bit of a red flag.

Living in Mississippi, I’ve heard whispers that Johnson’s poor performance and early exit in Hattiesburg came as a result of him not connecting with players. He was the polar opposite of the man he replaced, North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora, which probably didn’t help. If it’s true the then-61-year-old lost the locker room early, that’s a major red flag for Auburn moving forward.

Players will run through brick walls for coaches they respect, and who respect them. But, they’ll turn on a coach that loses them.

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  • I don’t say any of this lightly. I’m not just some nameless, faceless blogger typing away in my parent’s basement. You can see my bowtie at the top of the page, and I’ve got a personal connection to Johnson. I was a high school football coach for three seasons in Georgia, and one of my coaching mentors on that staff played and coached for Johnson at The Citadel.

    In a related note, I’m a fan of coaches in general. Having done it myself, I understand the work that goes in to game-planning, practice, off-season conditioning and recruiting. I haven’t done it at the level Johnson has, but I know just how difficult it is to teach young players their roles and responsibilities in a complicated defensive scheme. And Johnson’s 4-2-5 can be complicated, and it puts a lot of pressure on the players to execute.

    As a result, it puts a lot of pressure on the defensive coordinator when things go wrong, like they did tonight. And that pressure takes a toll on the coach’s family.

    “This last turnaround was so hard for (the kids) because they hardly even made any friends and they had to pick up and move again,” Johnson, a father of three kids aged 8-12 at the time of his hiring, said about leaving USM. “The landing has been super. They love the community, they’ve got good friends, the schools they’re in. Everything has been great for the kids.”

    Coaching is a very tough job. But, it comes with the territory when you do it at the highest level – and Auburn and the Southeastern Conference is as high a level there is for a college football coach. Plus, Johnson’s been compensated well for his time and efforts.

    But, in a results-based business, it may be time to move on.

    Next: Auburn Can't Hang With Amari Cooper in 55-44 Iron Bowl Loss

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