MATTOON – Troy Johnson reclines in a desk chair in Mattoon’s coaches’ office, “Fortunate Son” playing in the background. Assistants and players are bustling everywhere, caught up in the rush and excitement of starting their second practice of the season. Johnson’s focus, though, is channeled on his conversation as if nothing is happening around him. He’s the eye of the storm.
This is Johnson’s domain, his territory. There’s a distinct level of comfort and feeling of control that accompanies 11 seasons as a head coach operating one of the Apollo Conference’s more stable operations. Since joining the league in 2012, Mattoon has reached the playoffs five times. No one’s tugging the leash trying to jerk him onto a different path or coaching style.
Nothing’s overwhelming at this point. Not even losing a two-year starting quarterback who’s now a safety at Division I Lehigh University. How could it be for a man who, above all, is here for the personal challenge and insists he doesn’t know his career record?
“That’s the great thing about high school football. Every year you kind of regroup and reload, try to do the best with the kids that show up,” Johnson said. “Last year was last year. We have a whole new group of kids.”
Indeed. Jack Pilson is gone, creating the void at quarterback. So is all-conference offensive lineman Payton Smith, who signed with Illinois State to throw the discus. The entire linebacker unit graduated. Johnson’s message to his team, though, steered clear of over-emphasizing win total expectations or grand visions.
To Johnson, placing those types of goals above all else creates a tricky tripwire that threatens to jolt his vision astray. It’s the kind of coaching lifestyle that burned him out of his dream job and led him to Mattoon. To understand his philosophy, his view of success and his approach to Mattoon’s 2019 season of change, it’s necessary to understand the prior trials that shaped it.
“There are a lot of people who do the goal-oriented stuff like winning the conference or be in the playoffs,” Johnson said. “We have those, and those should be in there every year. But when I’ve taken any job, I’ve never promised wins.
“If you can teach hard work and kids understand it and have some fun with it, normally it’s going to turn out pretty good for you.”
Seasons like this one, with so many new faces and departed stalwarts, allow Johnson’s re-channeled competitive energy to shine. He relishes seeing players progress. This year, his challenge is breaking in a new quarterback. The contenders are brothers Dylan and Jackson Spurgeon.
Mattoon’s and Johnson’s first test is Aug. 30 at Troy Triad, whose four-year playoff streak ended last season. He’d like a win, of course, but a loss is not automatically a indictment on his job in his eyes. Not anymore, that is.
“I’m as big a competitor as anyone out there. I don’t want to lose,” Johnson said. “You’re going to get our full effort, but sometimes they’ll be better than you. I think they take well to that. But yeah, I want to win. I want to beat all of ‘em. I try and hide my ego, but every coach has some kind of an ego.”
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Therein lies the shift in Johnson’s competitiveness. In some ways, his playing career is a reflection of his sermon. He arrived at Indiana State in 1982 and morphed from a 185-pound walk-on linebacker who wasn’t even invited to training camp to defensive starter through infectious preparation and persistence that outshined his lack of physical attributes.
“I was still slow,” Johnson recalled with a laugh.
In 2008, former college teammate Trent Miles was named Indiana State’s head coach. He offered Johnson, then the head coach at nearby Marshall High School, a job on his staff. It was a pay cut, but a chance to coach at his alma mater and teach the very position he played. Furthermore, his son, Travis, would be a freshman quarterback for the Sycamores.
That first season, though, revealed the harder side of his dream job. College coaching, at times, can feel like a meat grinder, where pressure is on the mind as much as the passion for the art of coaching. There are only so many Division I jobs, and everyone in them is expected to win in relatively short order. Johnson was not there to turn something around and move up the college coaching ladder. He wanted to be at the school he loved helping players develop. He had no intention of leaving the area. When Mattoon’s job opened in the spring of 2009, he applied and was later hired.
So Johnson returned to high school coaching, where he can teach without worrying as much about his job security or his next move. Here, his aim each year is to take the group of players who show up on the first day of practice and tailor his plans to them instead of recruiting to a system. In a way, it’s a game he constantly plays with himself. It’s him vs. his own coaching ability. And this season presents one of its more fascinating editions.
“Seeing the progression of where you start and where you end is the fun part,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of ways to measure success, as long as you’re realistic on some stuff. These are years where you figure out if you can really coach football. It’s not the wins and losses.”
Johnson stops himself, reclines and restarts.
“It’s thinking that this is what we’ve got: can we get that guy who’s here,” he said, raising his outstretched hand slowly upward, “to here?”
“That to me is success and enjoyable, when a kid finally gets it."