Last week, True To The Cru sat down with Kris Johnson, a former student assistant coach at UMHB from 2018-2019, and is now on the Rice coaching staff as an Defensive Analyst/Assistant Linebackers coach.
Johnson had a unique journey into coaching, beginning at a young age (19), and quickly establishing himself as a hard worker, and dedicated student of the game on the UMHB coaching staff. He has done the same at Rice, playing a role in the defense, which is currently No. 5 in yards allowed per game in Conference USA.
Q: You started your college career at Blinn Junior College, came to UMHB and went right into coaching as a student assistant. What made you decide to come to UMHB?
KJ: I was always familiar with the program. What’s really interesting is I played for Eliot Allen at Stratford High School. Once I figured out my chances of playing in the NFL were slim to none I picked the smart route, and said, ‘If I go into the NFL by coaching, that’ll probably be easier’. So I started coaching at 19. At the end of my senior year of high school, Eliot Allen gave me a book that was written by Grant Teaff, called “The Master Coaches: Volume II” It was a transcript from the legends coaches panel at the 2016 AFCA Convention. If you know who Grant Teaff is, Coach Fredenburg was his Defensive Coordinator for 13 seasons, so that’s where that connection to UMHB came from. You come to UMHB to learn how to be a coach. Our players are coaches. They see the game as coaches. They’re in tune to the intricacies of the game, just like coaches are. If you look at Southlake Carroll, San Antonio Brandeis, DeSoto, Westlake all those major high schools in Texas, you’ll find out that some of those coaches started at UMHB.”
Q: You started coaching at a young age, before most of your fellow coaches had stopped playing. How key was it for you, learning the ins and outs of the game and gaining that experience?
KJ: In today’s world, with all the resources we have, there’s no reason not to know. So for me, it was fundamental for me to get around great coaches who I knew I could learn a lot from. It’s not new, to have kids coming out of high school and going into coaching, but I think it is going to become much more popular when you have guys coming in as student assistants at 18 years old. By the time they’re 20, 21, and graduate college, they’ll be at power five programs, if not already.
Q: You were on the UMHB staff in 2018, during the national championship season. What are some of your memories from that remarkable year?
KJ: That was my very first year coaching in college, and also my most memorable. For the rest of my career, I’ll draw on those experiences and what I learned from that 2018 season. I worked closely with the defense, so I was in all of those early morning staff meetings with Defensive Coordinator, Larry Harmon and the Head Coach, Pete Fredenburg. 2018 was my chance to get an 18 week crash course on what it takes to build a national championship football team. I got to see that first hand. Coach Fred always used to say, you have to see yourself at the trophy presentation. Which is true, to learn about being a great football team, you have to talk about winning, you have to put the preparation into those goals that you have.
Q: From that season, is there one game that sticks out to you?
KJ: It was the quarterfinals against Saint John’s, probably the best game I’ve ever been a part of. They got the possession back [late in the fourth quarter] and Jefferson Fritz, the player that he is, held them and stopped them. They were close to scoring, and Jefferson Fritz made an NFL-type play, and intercepted a pass in the end zone. Had they scored, they probably would have gone to the national championship game that year. That cannot be taught, it’s just pure will to win.”
Q: You’ve become known to be a great recruiter at UMHB. Where did that knack for recruiting come from?
KJ: When I was playing at Blinn, all my teammates were telling me ‘Man, you’re going to be a great recruiter’. That was before I even went into coaching, and at the time I really didn’t pay much attention to it. I just took it for what it was at the time. It’s something that I would say is a God-given gift, being genuine with people and building relationships. I truly care about people. Football changed my life. So if I can give kids that same opportunity with football, I think I’m doing what God has called me to do. I can’t really explain it, I think it’s just a God-given gift.
Q: What did you learn at UMHB that has now helped you at Rice?
KJ: UMHB is my foundation. I will always hold onto the lessons I’ve learned from Coach Harmon, and Coach Fred. There’s one thing that I will use for the rest of my life and that’s to pay attention to every little detail. Coach Harmon taught me that every single play in the game of football, you can tell where it is going based on the running back. Based on the alignment, based on the depth, etc. In order to see those small differences it takes a great amount of attention to detail. I draw on that every day. UMHB instilled a work ethic in me that I will forever appreciate, build on and cultivate. I look up to Coach Harmon as a role model. He is the first coach that I’ve ever looked at as a role model, besides my high school coach, Eliot Allen. Coach Allen is the reason I’m here today. But Coach Harmon is the first mentor I’ve had as a football coach. In 2018, I was in charge of the kickers. I didn’t really do a good job, but the one thing he always said was, ‘If you can get a kid to change his behavior, you’ll have a career in this profession’. If you can get someone to run through a brick wall for you, guess what, you’re going to get the best out of them.