Bill "Tiger" Johnson, the tough, throwback Texan who was Paul Brown's hand-picked successor to coach the Bengals, died Friday morning in Fort Myers, Fla., after a long illness. He was 84.
"He was a man's man in every sense of the word," said radio analyst Dave Lapham, who played on Johnson's offensive line. "He was tough, hard-nosed, the epitome of the old school. He was as honest as the day is long. His word was important to him. Players loved him because there was no B.S. or hidden agendas."
Johnson, whose Texas drawl sounded like spikes scraping across the sandlots, won 18 of his first 28 games in 1976 and 1977 during his first two seasons as Bengals head coach. But an 0-5 start in 1978 without injured quarterback Ken Anderson led to his departure.
Yet he was a Bengals original as well as a staple. He was on Brown's first coaching staff in 1968 as the offensive line coach, returned to the Bengals in 1985 as tight ends coach under Sam Wyche, and retired after the Bengals won the AFC Central in 1990.
“Tiger was admired and respected by all during the length of his tenure with the Bengals,” said Bengals president Mike Brown. “He was a man’s man in every way -- strong, firm and yet lovable at the same time. I could talk for hours about his time here, and his loss hits me in the heart.”
The Tiger Line stretches so far in Bengaldom that the current running backs coach, Jim Anderson, worked with him in that last stint.
"Great man, great coach and he was a mentor to a young guy like me," said Anderson, who was in his second season when Johnson arrived.
Wyche, a quarterback on that 1968 team, noticed Johnson's "laser focus" that picked up movement all over the field, not just on the offensive line.
"I told myself when I saw that as a player," Wyche said, '' 'that's how I'm going to be as a coach. I want to be able to see everything.' He was a real leatherneck, no question about that. And the players loved him. He wasn't beloved. He was loved."
Johnson was also an assistant in Tampa Bay from 1979-82 and Detroit from 1983-84, yet he is best known as Brown's loyal lieutenant during the rise of "The Baby Bengals," who got the nod over future Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh when Paul Brown retired after the 1975 season.
“Tiger played for the 49ers against my dad’s Cleveland teams,” said Mike Brown, Paul Brown’s son. “He earned my dad’s respect and with it, eventually, the appointment to coach here. His players all respected and looked up to him, and they could not have had a better teacher.”
After playing at Texas A&M, Johnson was a center for nine years with the 49ers and was voted to the Helms Foundation All-Pro team. Ironically, when Walsh left the Bengals he eventually ended up in San Francisco and led the 49ers to three Super Bowl titles in the '80s.
When he retired from coaching, Paul Brown chose Johnson over Walsh, his offensive coordinator, in a move that has been widely panned. But it wasn't then.
"He was a veteran guy who had coached and played in the league for a long time and a great football man," Wyche said.
"Tiger was well qualified for the position," Lapham said. "I think Paul and Tiger had an agreement because Tiger had other chances to leave. And I know Bill (Walsh) was unhappy, but I just think he figured Tiger was going to be coaching the Bengals for a long time."
And he might have been if it hadn't been for a literal bad break. With a livid Paul Brown watching during the final preseason game of 1978, Johnson sent Anderson out to start the second half against the Packers. Anderson promptly broke his throwing hand when he hit it on a helmet on his follow through.
With Anderson sidelined the Bengals opened with five straight losses and Johnson was gone in favor of Homer Rice. Actually, his departure is more steeped in lore than his appointment. No one knew if he was he fired or if he resigned, but the word was he had brought his lunch to work that day.
"That's the story I heard; all the players felt he had been dismissed," Lapham said. "He fell victim to losing our best player. I'm sure if there's one move he could have back in his coaching career, it was leaving Kenny in against Green Bay. I think guys felt so bad because they felt like they had let Tiger down. I think the world of him."
The Browns thought enough of him that when Wyche went into his second season they suggested that the 40-year-old Wyche take a look at hiring the 61-year Johnson to coach tight ends and he didn't hesitate. Together with offensive line coach Jim McNally, they pieced together running games that finished in the top five every year from 1986-90. And they developed double teams with tackles and tight ends to fend off the NFL's new breed of pass rusher.
"Tiger was great at trick plays," McNally said. "Throwback passes, special packages, stuff like that. And our tight ends did a lot of different things, like going in motion, and he did a great job of having them prepared. He was calm, cool and collected, but when a guy screwed up, he'd all of a sudden jump in a guy's face. He was good at that. What a great guy."
The language of Tiger was as colorful as Bengals orange. Hall of Fame left tackle Antony Muñoz would watch Johnson watching some kind of on-field mishap and mutter, "NFL, my butt."
"But he wouldn't say butt; Tiger kept it real," Muñoz said. "Tiger and Jimmy were always coming up with some schemes. They had double teams, chips. The guys who had been around awhile, the Tigers, the McNallys, the Howard Mudds, they knew what to do because they'd been around."
Anderson watched a ton of debate between the pass (Wyche) and run (McNally) and they'd go to Johnson when Wyche said, "We were stumped." Wyche calls him "The Tiebreaker." Anderson calls him "The Stabilizer."
"Tiger would say, 'This is what we're going to do. It's just football. It’s blocking, tackling, running,' " Anderson said.
Lapham, a third-round pick out of Syracuse in 1974, remembered his first practice after he made the team out of preseason. He didn't know he'd made it at first. He couldn’t find his desk with his name taped on it in the meeting room because Stan Walter and the other linemen hid it in a closet, so he thought he was cut.
When they hauled it out, Lapham said he was so happy, "I flew through practice." But after it was over, Johnson told Lapham, "Stay out here," and he made him go through individual drills like the seven-man sled and bags.
"By myself and I'm thinking, if this is the NFL, I'm going to do something else," Lapham said. "After we were done he said, 'Just remember, I can cut your butt at anytime and I will if you loaf through a practice like that again.' I thought I'd done well. Like I said, I was flying. And the other linemen said, 'He's just testing you,' and he stopped after a week."
But he wasn't all that tough. Like Wyche said, "If you called 100 people, they wouldn't say a bad word about Tiger."
Linemen like Lapham and Muñoz loved him, but when a quarterback, Boomer Esiason, collected donations for Johnson's retirement gift, he had no problem getting them. Lapham, by then long retired, kicked in, too, and Muñoz still remembers the story he heard about Johnson sitting in the equipment room with equipment manager Tom Gray looking at his Rolex watch.
"Hey T.Gray. This is a pretty good watch. It had to cost $600-700 don't you think?" he asked.
Gray, in utter amazement, said, "Tiger, that's got to be $12, 13, 14,000 dollars."
Just as shocked, Johnson jumped up and said, "I can't wear anything that expensive."
But his players thought he could.
Johnson is survived by his wife, Dot, along with three children, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Family and close friends will hold a private memorial service on Wednesday of next week in Fort Myers, and a larger service is being planned for Cincinnati in the spring.