BOSTON (CBS) — A fixture on the New England sideline for the entirety of the Bill Belichick era is moving on from the Patriots.
Linebackers coach Pepper Johnson, who’s been with the organization since 2000, will not return to the team next season, according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss.
Johnson — who played on Belichick’s defenses with the Giants, Browns and Jets in the ’80s and ’90s — referred to the head coach as a “friend” in a statement made to Reiss.
“Today is the first day in 13 years that I am not a part of the New England Patriots, although I will always be a Patriot in my heart,” Johnson said. “Today also marks the first day in 26 years that I am not working in some capacity with one of greatest head coaches of all time, as well as my friend, Bill Belichick.”
Johnson didn’t specify his next career move, only saying that all of his dreams involve football in some capacity.
“I thank the entire New England Patriot Organization for the last 13 years of my life. I am proud of all the things we have accomplished,” Johnson said in the statement to Reiss. “The Kraft family is one of a kind and I will always be grateful to them and hold them in the highest regard. Bill Belichick and I have been working together in some capacity for 26 years and I am who I am because of it. To have five Super Bowl rings (two as a player, three as a coach) and all of them with Bill has been a blessing. I could never have asked for a better coach/boss/friend in those 26 years.”
Johnson’s coaching career began in 2000, two years after his final NFL season, as the Patriots’ defensive assistant. In 2001, he became the inside linebackers coach, helping transition Patriots Hall of Famer Tedy Bruschi from outside linebacker to the inside.
According to the Patriots’ website, Pepper — born Thomas Johnson — got his nickname from an aunt, “who observed his ritual of sprinkling pepper on his breakfast cereal as a youngster.”
“Thank you New England Patriot fans,” Johnson said in his statement. “I will miss you the most.”