Merv Johnson steps down as OU football radio analyst after 41 years with Sooners: 'There will be a giant hole in our broadcast booth'
NORMAN — The joy is evident in Merv Johnson’s voice.
In a radio booth in Miami on Jan. 3, 2001, the OU radio analyst was far from an uninterested observer.
“Ah, ha, MAN,” Johnson said, starting with a bit of a laugh before closing with celebratory emphasis, in the moments after OU beat Florida State to win the 2000 national championship. “Unbelievable. Unbelievable.”
Johnson quickly got back to the task at hand, though the enjoyment of the moment was impossible to hide.”
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Johnson has been a part of Sooners football for more than 40 years, becoming the constant in the program from Barry Switzer, through some lean years, to Bob Stoops and now to Lincoln Riley.
He’s been an assistant coach, director of operations and radio analyst for OU broadcasts.
Friday, the 84-year-old Johnson announced his retirement from the last of those jobs, the analyst role he’s held since 1999.
“Year in and year out I’ve been so proud to be associated with such a great university and football program," Johnson said in a release. "I’m looking forward to spending time with my family. My family is all around me here. I’m going to love watching the games with them.”
He worked 513 consecutive games from the time he started in 1979 through the Big 12 Championship Game last season. In the days before the Peach Bowl matchup against LSU, Johnson was involved in a car accident which kept him from the game.
Johnson has recovered well from the accident.
Johnson arrived in Norman in 1979 from Notre Dame, hired by Barry Switzer as an assistant coach.
He was retained by Gary Gibbs when Switzer departed, and then by two more coaches. In 1998, he moved from an on-field role to serve as OU’s director of football operations, a role he remained in until 2017. In 1999, he was hired to serve on OU’s radio broadcasts as well.
Both Toby Rowland and Chris Plank, who Saturday begin their 10th season as the Sooners’ play-by-play and sideline reporter on radio broadcasts, said Johnson has always been the calming figure in the booth.
“He’s the steady Eddie,” Rowland said. “He just never gets too high or too low and that’s hard to do in this profession. When there’s 100,000 people at the Cotton Bowl or you’re in a national championship semifinal and your blood’s pumping, it’s really easy to get emotionally carried away … He’s always been that counterbalance, not just for me, but I think really for Sooner Nation. He’s always been right there to even us out.”
While Rowland and Plank will miss Johnson’s contributions on game day, they’ll really feel his absence here in a few weeks when the Sooners head to play Iowa State on Oct. 3 in their first road game of the season.
Those Friday night dinners, where Johnson told stories of coaching legends like Joe Montana or coaching next to legends like Switzer and Frank Broyles kept everybody at the table enthralled.
It was always really special to me whenever I would get to sit next to him and just listen and pick his brain,” Plank said. “I like to think I know football and when I listen to Merv talk and tell his stories, I realized that man, I’ve got a long way to go.”
Those moments have been about much more than football, though.
“He epitomized what family is all about,” Plank said.
Last season, Johnson's grandson rode with them to Dallas for the Texas game.
While Johnson’s absence from the Peach Bowl was, at the time, thought of as a one-off bump in the road before his return, Rowland said it’ll be even more difficult not having Johnson there next to him in the booth — putting his hand on Rowland’s shoulder in a critical moment, or making sure something important didn’t get overlooked in the broadcast — and during the time the crew spends together away from the booth at those Friday night dinners and Uber rides to pick up credentials and elsewhere.
“Everybody on that crew understands that he’s a legend, he’s an icon, he’s a Hall of Famer,” Rowland said. “We rely on him for advice, broadcasting and otherwise, family or whatever. We’re going to miss him. I don’t know how to say it other than that. I’m super happy for him. He gave us a scare. I’m super glad that he’s doing so well.
“And I’m so excited that he’s going to get to spend this time with his family but there’s no doubt there’s going to be a giant hole in our broadcast booth.”