Brandon Johnson grew up in the small South Mobile County community of Coden, starred on one of the best football teams in Alma Bryant history and went on to block for Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown at Auburn.
Now Johnson, who owns a landscaping business in Mobile, wants to give something back to his hometown. He has been named the new football coach at Alba Middle School – one of Alma Bryant’s feeder programs.
“I didn’t necessarily think it would ever happen, but here we are,” Johnson told AL.com. “I’ve been coaching in the rec league down there for a few years. I just love the community. I’m proud of where I’m from. I feel like it (the area football program) has been declining over the years, and I want to see if I can make a difference.
“I don’t know if I can or not, but I want to at least try to do my part and see if I can make an impact on some lives.”
Johnson recently stepped down from a job in the railroad business after 14 years and will concentrate on Tiger Landscaping Services — which he started when he was at Auburn — and coaching at Alba.
“I have a voluntary coaching card,” he said. “It’s just something I wanted to give a shot and see if I can do it. I’ll be 40 this year. None of us know how much time we really have. This is all about pride in the community for me.”
Johnson lives in Grand Bay. In 1998, he led Rush Propst’s Alma Bryant team to a 12-1 record. The physical and aggressive fullback rushed for 1,320 yards and 17 touchdowns on 185 carries despite missing two games due to injury. Behind Johnson, the Hurricanes won their first 12 games before losing to Vigor 21-14 in the state quarterfinals.
“We were just hungry,” Johnson said. “We had a great team. But I went through a lot of years at Alba when we got beat down just because we didn’t have the numbers. There aren’t a lot of people down there when half your radius is water. It’s pretty selective.
“I think that is why they have so much pride. Back then, we were tired of losing. Neither Grand Bay nor Alba had the numbers really to compete. We all had to play both ways and, if there was an injury, it was really a setback. Coach Propst came in and he was not only good at the game of football, he was a great motivator. He got the most out of every player.”
Alma Bryant High was formed when schools from Bayou La Batre and Grand Bay joined together on one campus in 1998. The Hurricanes went a combined 24-2 in the first two football seasons under Propst and then Mark Lasseter. However, the team hasn’t won more than seven games in a season since and has logged 15 consecutive losing seasons.
“I’m not sure why we have continued to struggle,” he said. “It was pretty good for a few years after I left. I think, more than anything, it’s a mentality. That’s what I try to instill in all my players. Don’t get me wrong, I know I’ve been coaching little league.
“But it just seems like everyone wants to be a follower these days. People say, ‘I’m going to go over here and play because they are winning.’ No. Don’t do that. Don’t be a follower. Try to be a difference maker where you are. When you get guys to buy in like that, then I think it snowballs.
“The football part will take care of itself,” Johnson continued. “I don’t think you train kids to win football games. You train them to be tough and disciplined and be solid in the fundamentals. That is what wins games.”
Johnson said he didn’t know if he would aspire or even have a chance to coach on the Alma Bryant High staff at any point in the future.
“Up until the last few weeks, I had no idea I could do this,” he said. “I have made a lot of transition in the last few months. When I first got a call about Alba, I thought there was no way I could do it with everything I had going on. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it might be God’s plan for me. We haven’t been doing so well. Maybe I could help. I hope I can.”
Johnson said he believes there is a gap in middle school coaching that he hopes to correct.
“Football is a game of inches,” he said. “It’s about right alignments and knowing where to go. Six inches is often the difference in a two-yard gain and an 80-yard touchdown. That is what I want to try and teach. I’ve learned a lot from coaches like Todd Watson and Rush Propst and Eric Collier. Those guys taught me a lot about football and a lot about life. That’s what I want to teach.”
Johnson, who played briefly for the Atlanta Falcons after leaving Auburn, said he attends some Alma Bryant games on Friday nights and would likely attend more in the future.
“We really need to get all these programs tied together,” he said. “We are losing a bunch of players who are going to other schools because no one wants to play for a team that is not winning. Again, it’s about the mentality. There is talent down here. Maybe there is not a ton and not in big numbers, but we have some players here – enough to win. We just need to hold on to them.”
Alma Bryant head coach Doug Hoehn called it a great hire for Alba.
“What is so important about Brandon is that he is a great individual,” Hoehn said. “I have no doubt he is a great football coach but more importantly Brandon loves this community. He’s from here, he lives here, he’s an extremely strong supporter of Alma Bryant and he really wants the community and the schools here to do well in everything whether its academics or athletics or whatever. He made a specific effort to come back and be a part of this community. He is a great role model already, and he will really invest in those kids.”