Former UCLA Bruin football player and assistant coach John Johnson died in his sleep on Oct. 14. He was 96.
Johnson was captain of UCLA’s 1939 freshman football team that competed in practice against the likes of Jackie Robinson and Kenny Washington. He left UCLA after his junior season to serve four years in the Naval Air Corps before returning to school in 1946. During his senior campaign in 1946, he helped the Bruins win the Pacific Coast Conference title and advance to the 1947 Rose Bowl Game. An All-Coast honoree as a fullback, Johnson was MVP of the 1947 Hula Bowl All-Star game and went on to sign a professional contract with the Baltimore Colts.
After an injury halted his playing career, Johnson soon returned to UCLA and earned two degrees in history and physical education. He became a graduate assistant coach and earned his master’s degree in 1962 and his doctorate in education and administration in 1965.
Johnson was a full-time coach at UCLA from 1950 to 1964, coaching defensive backs, and was a member of Red Sanders’ coaching staff during its national championship season in 1954. That team featured 11 future NFL players. From 1950–57, Johnson served as the head UCLA freshman coach, and his 1955 squad became the only undefeated and untied freshman team in school history. Johnson was also the assistant golf coach at UCLA from 1962 and 1963 before becoming the head golf coach in 1964.
In 1966, Johnson left UCLA to become the athletic director at Cal Poly Pomona, and in 1968, he became the first-ever athletic director at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He was also the school’s first golf coach, a position he held for 45 years before retiring in 2013.
Johnson continued to work in football, helping the Hula Bowl develop into one of the top all-star college football games in the country, and he also played a key role in the development of the Japan Bowl, the first postseason all-star game for college seniors played in a foreign country. Additionally, Johnson served as an NFL scout from 1965–90, working with the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers.
“The passing of John Johnson leaves me with a heavy heart, but also with a tremendous sense of gratitude for having had the opportunity to work with and learn from this incredible individual,” said Dan Guerrero, UCLA director of athletics, who also served as director of athletics at Cal State Dominguez Hills. “John’s life and career are laden with superlatives, ranging from his fantastic career as a football student-athlete at UCLA, to his successful coaching career at both UCLA and California State University, Dominguez Hills. He also served as a role model for me as I cut my teeth as a young college athletic administrator back in the early 1980s. John loved to compete and treasured the many relationships that he was able to build over his long and storied career. He was a great Bruin and true legend.”
Memorial services will be held on Thursday, Oct. 26 at 11 a.m. at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City (5835 W. Slauson Ave.). A reception will immediately follow at the Jamaica Bay Inn in Marina Del Rey (4175 Admiralty Way).