TDBH: Bengals get a Tiger in O-line coach Johnson

Posted Jan 10, 2018

This Day in Bengals History - January 11

One of Bengals founder Paul’s Brown’s most significant hires is one of the first when he lures an old, respected foe today to become his first offensive line coach. Bill Johnson, who got the nickname “Tiger,” during his nine tenacious seasons in the ‘40s and ‘50s as the center of the 49ers, leaves San Francisco to join Brown’s expansion team after 11 seasons of coaching his old club’s line. “Having Johnson on our staff really adds something to the Bengals,” says Brown, preparing for this week’s expansion draft. “His experience will be very valuable to us.” Johnson, 41, a Texan who played at Texas A&M, joined the 49ers in 1948 in the three-year-old All-American Football Conference dominated by Brown’s Cleveland franchise. They lost the 1949 AAFC title game to the Browns in the last season of the league, but made the transition with San Francisco, Cleveland, and Baltimore into the NFL the next season.  “The 49ers and Browns were always big rivals and I was always on the opposite side of the field from Paul Brown,” says Johnson, a two-time Pro Bowler, “and I’m glad that now I’ll be on his side.”

It turns out Johnson is not only on Brown’s side, but at his side as he and wide receivers coach Bill Walsh become integral parts of one of the league’s top offenses. Johnson is so attuned to Brown that Brown names Johnson his successor as head coach in 1976. He promptly wins 17 of his first 28 games but he’s gone after the first five games of 1978 when the Bengals start 0-5 after quarterback Ken Anderson breaks his throwing hand in the pre-season finale. The bond of old foes is tight, though. Johnson returns as tight ends coach in 1985 for six seasons and teams with offensive line coach Jim McNally to lead the Bengals to five straight top five rushing rankings that include back-to-back No. 1s in 1988 and 1989 while tight end Rodney Holman goes to three straight Pro Bowls under Johnson’s old school watch.

When Johnson dies at 84 in 2011, Jim Anderson, the Bengals running backs coach on that staff, recalls the countless debates between McNally pushing the run and head coach Sam Wyche pushing the pass. 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 says. “He was a man's man in every sense of the word," says 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."

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