After he transferred from a Texas junior college in January 2016, Branch said it took him about half of the first year before he figured out that Johnson was not quite as advertised.
For instance, Branch noticed that Johnson approached players before practice and went for laughs.
“On the outside, people just think he’s mean as hell,” Branch said. “He’s not. He’s actually a really good guy. Real easy to talk to.”
One of his favorite memories from Tech, he said, will be a recent dinner that Johnson held for the seniors as he regaled them with stories.
“He’s a really good guy,” Branch said. “I really enjoyed playing under him.”
Junior wide receiver Jalen Camp
A phrase Johnson often repeated was that no one expected more out of himself and his teams than he did. So it was that Johnson’s high standards made an impression on Camp.
“Just his focus on getting the job done, regardless,” Camp said. “He’s not really trying to be your friend or whatever. He just wants everybody to get the job done.”
How did Camp see that trait?
“Like, for instance, you mess up in practice, he’s not going to be too nice to you,” Camp said. “At the end of the day, he just wants everybody to get the job done.”
Senior linebacker Jalen Johnson
Jalen Johnson went with an oft-cited characteristic of his coach, his unwillingness to sugarcoat.
“He’s straight to the point; he’s real,” Johnson said. “He’s never going to say anything, like, lie or anything like that. He’s going to tell you straight up if you’re good or you’re bad. That’s one thing I respect about him.”
Senior quarterback TaQuon Marshall
Perhaps no player on Johnson’s teams had it harder than the starting quarterback, a role that Marshall filled the past two years. As the de facto offensive coordinator, Johnson was highly involved with the position and expected it to be played to his specifications. Despite that pressure, as Marshall’s career comes to an end, he spoke with fondness for his coach.
“Coach Johnson has a lot of pretty cool stories,” Marshall said. “Being able to hear some of those things – even the jokes that he tells – it’s always pretty interesting just to get to be around him, because he’s a pretty fun guy to be around.”
Senior linebacker Brant Mitchell
As his time at Tech has passed, so has Mitchell’s relationship with Johnson grown.
“Obviously, when I’m a freshman, it’s like, All right, No. 51,” Mitchell said, referring to his jersey number.
But serving as a captain, Mitchell said he and Marshall saw more of Johnson, particularly his gift for storytelling.
“He’s just a great coach and a great guy to be around,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell was not safe from Johnson’s digs. Most had to do with his once lengthy hair.
“He called me a girl or something, and I said, ‘All right, Papaw,’” Mitchell said.
Senior A-back Qua Searcy
Searcy will have similar memories of Johnson as Camp.
“Him cussing somebody out,” Searcy said. “I think that happens every day.”
What is it like to be in his crosshairs?
“It’s definitely a scary sight because he means what he says,” Searcy said. “You’ve just got to be careful what you do. Like every other coach, they’re going to yell at you if you mess up. You’ve just got to take the heat and then move on.”
Searcy said he managed to receive a Johnson berating once or twice in five seasons.
“I don’t know how that happened,” he said. “I just stayed out of Dodge.”
As an A-back, Searcy may be the final messenger for a Johnson play call. A staple of Tech games for the past 11 years was Johnson putting his arm around an A-back on the sideline, giving him the play and instructions, and sending him to the huddle with a shove.
Sometimes, the more involved the instructions – perhaps a tweak in blocking assignments – the greater the chance for the A-back locking up as he relayed the message.
“It didn’t happen a lot, but it happened a couple times,” Searcy said. ‘Somehow I figured out how to remember the play. It definitely happened.”
Redshirt freshman cornerback Tre Swilling
For someone who is 19 years old, Swilling was particularly taken by Johnson’s longevity and run of success.
“Like everyone says, it’s not every day you get a chance to play for a hall-of-fame coach, and one who’s been coaching 40 years,” Swilling said. “Longer than he hasn’t been coaching, almost doubling the years he hasn’t been coaching. I think that’s just powerful as a whole.”
As for memories, sometimes it’s the small things. Swilling said he’ll remember Johnson enjoying a pre-practice cigar every Thursday.
“I asked him one day, I’m like, so when will we be able to smoke one together?” Swilling said. “Just messing with him. He tried to give me some answer, and I brushed it off.”