Bill Little commentary: And now,
It was, without question, the most popular television show of the time, and the theme song of "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," was almost as familiar as most children's nursery songs.
So when Johnnie Johnson became the best punt return man in all of college football in the late 1970s, the late Jones Ramsey, UT's Sports Information Director, came up with a gimmick.
"The Tonight Show" always began with the theme song, and then announcer Ed McMahon would say, stretching it out as long as he could, "And now, heerree's Johnny!"
Ramsey, who was always looking for a way to publicize his players, got a copy of the music for the Tonight theme, got it to the Longhorn band, and every time Johnson would go on the field to return a punt, they'd play it, and then chant, "And now, here's Johnnie!"
Ramsey would be smiling today as the National Football Foundation announces its latest class for induction into the College Hall of Fame, because, well, now, "Here's Johnnie!"
Johnnie Johnson, a two-time all-America defensive back during his career at Texas from 1976 through 1979, becomes the 14th Longhorn player named to the Hall, and the 16th overall inductee, including coaches Dana X. Bible and Darrell Royal.
The names of fame include end Hub Bechtol from the 1940s; running back Earl Campbell, who played with Johnson in the late 1970s; Chris Gilbert, running back, 1960s; Malcolm Kutner, end, 1939-41; Bobby Layne, quarterback, 1940s; Roosevelt Leaks, running back, 1970s; Bud McFadin, guard, 1948-50; Tommy Nobis, linebacker, 1963-65; James Saxton, running back, 1959-61; Harley Sewell, guard, 1950-52; Jerry Sisemore, tackle, 1970-72; Bud Sprague, tackle, 1923-24; and Harrison Stafford, halfback, 1930-32.
Johnson's selection is significant in that it comes at a time when Texas is in the midst of a phenomenal run of defensive backs that re-establishes it as "Defensive Back U." Ironically, with almost two dozen former Longhorns going on to play professionally in secondaries throughout the NFL and half of those earning all-American honors, Johnson is the first UT defensive back named to the Hall of Fame.
But the evolving of the profile of the position has cast new light on a spot that has been a staple historically for Texas Longhorn teams.
The Jim Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation's top defensive back and has been won the last two years by Longhorns Michael Huff and Aaron Ross, didn't exist in Johnson's time. Instead, in 1978, the Downtown Athletic Club of New York -- the folks who award the Heisman -- named the top position players in the country. And Johnnie Johnson, who had just completed his junior season, was their choice as a defensive back.
Johnson's prowess came as no surprise to Darrell Royal, who had recruited him out of LaGrange, Texas, in 1976. Johnnie had gotten off to a great start as a freshman that season, but a freak leg injury that started as a "Charley Horse" kept him out most of the season. That was but one of the myriad of injuries that plagued Royal's final Texas team that season.
In 1977, Fred Akers was the head coach, Johnson was well, and so was Texas. The Longhorns, with Campbell running for the Heisman and Johnson leading a rugged defense, marched unbeaten through the regular season to a No. 1 national ranking before losing their bowl game to Notre Dame.
It was a time when Texas was producing tremendous secondary players, such as Raymond Clayborn, Glenn Blackwood, Ricky Churchman, Derrick Hatchett and Johnson. All went on to start in the NFL.
Johnson, because of his punt returning ability, as well as his ability to play safety with cornerback speed and a linebacker's hitting ability, became the poster child of the group.
He has a showcase tackle in 1977 to stop a late Oklahoma drive, but perhaps his showcase moment actually came in 1979 against an Iowa State team whose young offensive coordinator was a guy named Mack Brown.
In the opening game of the season, Brown's Cyclones had stunned a packed Memorial Stadium crowd by leading at halftime, 9-3. Texas defensive coordinator Leon Fuller challenged Johnson and his defense. In the first half, Iowa State had run 43 plays and had 132 yards of total offense. In the second half, they ran only 19 plays and gained a net of only 20 yards. Johnson finished the game with 10 tackles.
The nine points which Iowa State posted would turn out to be the average surrendered by that Texas defense, which allowed opponents only nine points a game for the entire season.
Johnson still holds several UT punt return records. During his time, he set records for most punt return yardage in a game (131), most punt return yardage in a season (538) and most punt return yardage in a career (1,004). He averaged 12.2 yards per return for 44 returns in 1977. For his career, he finished with 114 punt returns, had 13 career interceptions and 282 tackles. He was named to the Southwest Conference's all-decade team for the 1970s.
He was a first round draft choice of the Los Angeles Rams, and highlighted his rookie season with a then NFL record 99-yard pass interception return for a touchdown. He played 10 years with the Rams and a season with the Seattle Seahawks. Following his career, he became a popular motivational speaker and author, living in Los Angeles.
He was inducted into the Longhorn Hall of Honor in 1990, and was a two-time consensus all-America and a three-time all-Southwest Conference selection.
And now, he's headed for New York in December, where one more time, the memory of that catchy tune and those special moments will trigger thoughts of a football field far away, and a distant cry at the door of the Hall of Fame, saying, "Here's Johnnie!"