Mike Johnson has been a midseason replacement for two fired coaches the past two seasons, first as an offensive coordinator with the 49ers and now as interim coach with UCLA. And now he comes full circle as he is back in San Francisco for the first time since taking over UCLA, leading his team into Saturday’s Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park.
Johnson took over for Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel when he was dismissed on Nov. 29 after four disappointing seasons, finishing with a 21-29 record.
Johnson’s elevation to replace someone who was relieved of his duties is becoming commonplace.
Johnson spent the 2009 and 2010 seasons with the 49ers and took over as the offensive coordinator after Jimmy Raye’s dismissal on Sept. 27, 2010.
“That has made me a better coach,” Johnson said of his impromptu promotion with San Francisco last season. “You have to go in and put a game plan together in three days and then go call it. Then take over someone else’s offense and then make it go and work for the last 15 weeks. I’m happy to say we improved 10 points statistically through our deal in that time.”
Johnson said the 49ers’ missing ingredient during his tenure was structure, and it’s something this current squad has found.
“Jim Harbaugh has done a great job of providing that structure,” Johnson said. “I’m not surprised one bit by how they’re playing.”
The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl could be Johnson’s final game with UCLA as the university hired former Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks coach, and 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr. to become the new coach for the Bruins.
Johnson has talked with Mora, but believes the new coach already has someone in mind for next season.
“I’m not worried about getting a job. That’s something I’ve had to do in the past,” Johnson said. “I think I’m respected enough as a professional that I’ll find something to do.”
Johnson interviewed for the head job at his alma mater of Akron, but was not selected.
“I enjoyed that process,” he said.
The coaching transition has been smoothed over with having nearly a month to prepare with Johnson as the coach.
“It helps a little bit. It’s still strange,” UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince said. “[Johnson is] more reserved, but he’s very vocal when he needs to be. It’s been a good transition for us.”
“Our guys have been extremely positive. I’m been encouraged by the level of energy we’ve practiced with,” Johnson said. “They want to get out there and put on a good show.”
Hraft Fight Hunger Bowl
Illinois (6-6) vs. UCLA (6-7)
WHEN: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
WHERE: AT&T Park