- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson wouldn't have missed this for the world.
The only question, as it turns out, was which side of the field he would be on Monday night in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.
Johnson, one of the most respected defensive minds in college football, was one of Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher’s top targets when Mark Stoops left Florida State to become Kentucky’s head coach.
But one of the first calls newly hired Auburn coach Gus Malzahn made after getting the job was also to Johnson, who was fired after one forgettable 0-12 season as Southern Miss’ head coach.
“It was close. I guess I could have been on the other side,” Johnson said Saturday during media day. “I actually got a call from someone Jimbo and I both know before I even got fired at Southern Miss.”
To say the least, Johnson was intrigued and remembers telling his wife, Caroline, that the Florida State situation was ready-made.
“We really thought we were looking at a three-year deal here at Auburn,” Johnson said. “Nobody expected this, but I knew they were going to win at Florida State.”
After meeting with Malzahn, Johnson was scheduled to meet with Fisher, but didn't want to drag it out any further; he knew Auburn was where he belonged.
Getting back into the SEC was important for Johnson, as was getting a chance to work under Malzahn. But, ultimately, Johnson made his decision for family reasons.
He’d taken his family out of Columbia, S.C., which was home to his wife, to accept the Southern Miss job and felt as though they’d be happier in Auburn. Plus, he wasn't too far away from locking in a nice pension from the state of Alabama after working previously on Alabama’s coaching staff.
“There were a lot of reasons to go to Florida State, and I knew Jimbo was on the verge of something special there,” Johnson said. “But there were some other reasons outside football that made Auburn the right choice for us, and it’s been unbelievable the way this season has unfolded.”
Johnson’s first defense at Auburn has had its moments, both good and bad. But the Tigers have consistently made key plays during crucial situations and were second in the SEC in red zone defense.
“We’re going to have to play a lot more consistently in this game,” Johnson said. “If we give up some of the cheap plays we have this season at times, we’re going to have a hard time.”