High School Sports

Did you know famous football coach Jimmy Johnson got his start at this Mississippi school?

Head coach Frank Skipper, offensive line coach Buck Kennedy and defensive line coach Jimmy Johnson, right, look at film in this photos in the Picayune High School 1967 yearbook.
Head coach Frank Skipper, offensive line coach Buck Kennedy and defensive line coach Jimmy Johnson, right, look at film in this photos in the Picayune High School 1967 yearbook. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

Does this former South Mississippi football coach look familiar?

He should. He went on to win an NCAA National Championship plus two Super Bowls and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

If you’re a pro football fan, he’s likely in your living room or on your smartphone every Sunday morning.

One more: If he coached Picayune today he might say something like “HOW ‘BOUT THE MAROON TIDE?!”

You guessed it. Long before Jimmy Johnson led America’s team or built Miami into ‘The U,’ he was an assistant coach at Picayune Memorial High School.

The year was 1966 and Johnson had spent a year at Louisiana Tech after recently concluding his playing career at Arkansas.

How did Johnson even find Picayune?

Well, according to several reports, former Mississippi State defensive backs coach Johnny Majors, who was a coach at Arkansas during Johnson’s playing days, put in a good word for the up-and-coming coach.

“By the end of the 1965 season Johnson was hooked,” Ed Hinton wrote in 1992. “But then he got knocked flat. In ’66, Bill Peterson interviewed him for a job at Florida State, ‘but at the last minute,’ says Johnson, ‘he hired someone else.’ Jimmy jumped up, loaded Linda Kay and Brent into a U-Haul and went off to Picayune, Miss., to take a high school assistant’s job. Because he didn’t have teaching credentials he had to monitor study hall. That’s how badly he wanted to coach.”

Picayune wasn’t the powerhouse then that it is today, but it was a coaching gig and provided Johnson a way to work up the ranks.

Back in the Gulf Coast region in 1986 as his Miami Hurricanes prepared to face Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl, Johnson retold his coaching origin story to Larry Guest of the Orlando Sentinel.

Guest set the scene: It was the summer of 1966 and Tide coach Frank Skipper was showing around his newest assistant.

“By the way, how has Picayune High done in the last few seasons?” asked young Johnson.

“Haven’t you heard? We’ve been perfect for the last two years,” replied Skipper.

“I sort of had a clue when I noticed he smiled when he got to the ‘perfect’ part,” Johnson recalled in 1986. “Then he explained that Picayune hadn’t won a game in two years. We made it three. We were 0-10 that year. Every coach should have to go through an 0-10.”

It wound up being the only high school gig of Johnson’s career as he moved on to Wichita State, Iowa State and Oklahoma over the next handful of years.

After starting 0-2 with the Dallas Cowboys in 1989, the Associated Press wrote a story under the heading “Tough times for Jimmy.”

“It wasn’t like this for Jimmy Johnson at Picayune,” wrote the reporter, incorrectly considering the Tide’s lean years in the 1960s.

“I had a couple tough years when I was at Oklahoma State but I can’t compare it to that,” Johnson told the AP at the time. “And I don’t guess I could compare it to coaching at Picayune High School. Getting ready for Bay St. Louis isn’t quite as tough as getting ready for the Washington Redskins.”

Just like at Picayune, things ended up turning out OK for Johnson in Dallas.

Hog wild scare

Johnson’s first visit to the Gulf Coast wasn’t 1966.

Three years earlier Johnson thought his playing career at Arkansas was about to come to an abrupt end.

As Johnson told Guest, his Hogs were practicing in Biloxi ahead of the ’63 Sugar Bowl.

With Arkansas’ coaches at an official function, Johnson and a fellow reserve guard slipped out after curfew “for a cool one.”

“The two guards find a tavern that is delighted to have big-time football players in its midst, even to the point of supplying the drinks in exchange for a few autographs. There are no quarterbacks in the room, so the guards are loving it as the center of attention,” Guest wrote. “Suddenly, one of the guards feels a firm hand on one shoulder and a familiar voice booms instructions. ‘’Fellas, pay up and get your butts back to the hotel!’”

“I had that beer right here,” Johnson told Guest, one hand gripping an imaginary brew inches from his smiling face. ‘’You talk about having a sinking feeling. My whole career could have ended right there. But Coach (Doug) Dickey said he was not going to tell Coach Frank Broyles and told us not to ever let him catch us like that again. Nevertheless, I didn’t sleep a wink that night. I just knew I was going to be on a bus the next morning headed back to Arkansas.”

Patrick Ochs: 228-896-2321, @PatrickOchs