BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Jim Johnson found his true football home at the very end of his long and distinguished career, at the very end of a life that ended all too soon today.

The Eagles and their fans are grateful he did.

Johnson was prepared to retire in 1999 when he got an out-of-the-blue call from a young, unproven coach he'd met on a bus in Honolulu. Andy Reid had just been hired as head coach of the Eagles and he wanted Johnson, a man nearly two decades his senior, to be his defensive coordinator.

After scuffling to land a job coaching linebackers in Seattle a year earlier and then getting fired yet again, Johnson needed time to decide whether it would be better to step back and live on his comfortable NFL pension. Throwing in his lot with an inexperienced 40-year-old on the other side of the country from his family home - well, it seemed like a lot of bother.

But Johnson decided he might still have some coaching to do. He couldn't have been more right.

The ensuing decade of success here - seven playoff appearances, five trips to the conference championship game, that glorious trip to the Super Bowl - wound up being the best part of Johnson's career. And it wound up being the most successful extended period in the mostly unhappy history of the Eagles, as well.

"It wouldn't have been possible without Jim," Reid said at a hastily arranged press conference Tuesday night.

Club president Joe Banner pointed out that his aggressive defensive system was the least of what Johnson brought to the franchise: He was, Banner said, "a coach, a leader, a teacher."

Reid was asked why he thought Johnson stayed in Philadelphia so long. Ten years is forever for an NFL assistant coach. Reid talked about wanting the opportunity to win and the way the Eagles willingly made Johnson one of the best-paid coordinators in the league.

But there was more to it than that. By the time the Eagles' run began, Johnson was in his 60s - an older, defense-minded coach in a league that tended to hire younger, offense-oriented guys like Reid and Jon Gruden. It is a sideways tribute to Johnson that his proteges, John Harbaugh and Steve Spagnuolo, got head coaching jobs. They could deliver Johnson's defense in younger, prettier packages.

Disappointment shaded Johnson's career and informed his no-nonsense outlook. He could never take anything in football for granted.

He had been a quarterback at Missouri, a tight end briefly in the pros. Yet he wound up coaching defense.

He worked his way up through the college ranks and should have been the head coach at Notre Dame, one of the most glamorous jobs in the sport. But the university infamously chose Gerry Faust instead, so Johnson changed tacks and moved to professional football.

For most of his career in the USFL and NFL, he was the sort of coach who was respected by his peers and his players, but little known by the average fan.

Until he got to Philadelphia. Here he found fans obsessed with their Eagles and as excited by defensive football as Johnson himself. It was a perfect match. That may ultimately be the reason Johnson finished his career here, coaching through the onset of the cancer that claimed him yesterday.

Here, finally, he found the appreciation and respect he deserved.

It always seemed an odd match, the plainspoken and gentlemanly coach and the vicious, take-no-prisoners defense that he unleashed. Johnson took a vandal's delight in ransacking the other team's offensive game plan.

Where many coaches hide behind jargon and secrecy, Johnson's innate self-confidence and keen sense of perspective combined to make him remarkably candid with reporters and, through them, the fans.

Philadelphia, its football passions stoked by the likes of Buddy Ryan and Bud Carson, embraced Johnson's style, both on and off the field.

The lack of ego was actually one reason Johnson was such an outstanding coach. Rather than force players to conform to his precious system, he tailored his defense to take advantage of his players' unique skills.

In hindsight, it is even more remarkable that Johnson coached through last season's playoffs. He was in agony, forced to ride a motorized cart because of the pain in his back.

In hindsight, Johnson's decision to coach at a three-day camp in May was a magnificent gesture, a dying man taking one last look around as he did the thing he loved. There was real nobility in that.

He was, to the core, a coach's coach. He took his leave with the same quiet dignity and lack of pretense that defined him.

Jim Johnson arrived as the wise old man on Reid's staff and, after a decade of glorious wins and crushing losses, he was far, far too young when he left us.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.