By Kyle Daubs
It turns out that Troy Johnson is quite the storyteller.
The problem is his memory works in mysterious ways, according to assistant coach Jarod Kiger.
“It’s funny because he will remember a situation about something that happened in 1994, bring up their names, and specific game situations, but then he won’t remember something from 20 minutes ago,” said Kiger.
With that said, his storytelling, his ability to connect with the kids, and his natural empathy have made Johnson a very successful head coach at Mattoon High School. After 12 seasons coaching the Green Wave, Johnson will be coaching his final game under the lights this Friday against Marion.
While there have been some great moments, which have featured five playoff berths, Kiger believes the lasting impact will be on the kids on a personal level.
“He brings a lot of passion and his football knowledge is second to none,” said Kiger. “From the first conversation I had with him, his objective was the kids, though. At the end of the day, he wants the kids to leave the program as better people and hopefully teach them football along the way. That is probably the biggest thing I have taken away as a coach.”
Johnson came to Mattoon after a successful run at Marshall High School from 2002-07 when he recorded a 52-14 record with six straight playoff berths and two 10-win seasons. Marshall went toe-to-toe with top talent in the lower classes, including state powerhouse Casey-Westfield, who was led by Hall of Fame coach Keith Sinclair at the time.
After the 2007 season, Johnson took a year off, which was also the final season of Mattoon’s Gerald Temples. Nat Zunkel lasted just one season, going 2-7, which led to Johnson’s hiring.
Assistant coach Jarad Kimbro has been through all three coaches since starting in Mattoon in 2004. Temples, who is a Hall of Famer himself, has a similar personality to Johnson.
“They are both great guys who put the kids first,” said Kimbro. “That is their ultimate goal: to build better people. It was always about the kids first and that’s what I think has made both the football team and the kids successful all over the years here.”
Not all coaching changes can go according to plan, especially when you are dealing with your third head coach in three seasons, but Kimbro said that when Johnson was hired in 2009, the transition was easy.
“It was an easy transition,” said Kimbro. “He is a great guy. Easy to get along with. He’s been open to ideas and has been around the block, so he has a pretty good handle on what he wants to do. He knows there is more than one way to get things done.”
Mattoon recorded three straight 2-7 seasons while playing in the Big 12 Conference. Often, Mattoon was the smallest school in the conference, which made it difficult to compete consistently. In 2012, the Green Wave moved to the Apollo Conference, where they picked up their first playoff berth in five years.
Kimbro says that Johnson never let those low moments in the Big 12 get to him, while also keeping in perspective what making the playoffs meant as well.
“The first year we played Charleston in the clash, they thumped us, but then we were able to come back and repay the favor the next year,” said Kimbro. “That was a lot of fun. Plus, all those years we made the playoffs. We had to battle. We don’t have any gimmes on our schedule. It was a true battle every time to make the playoffs. He’s really good about letting people remember to not let the highs get too high and the lows to never get too low. His thing is that it’s never as good as it seems and never as bad. When you go back and reflect on what’s happening, there’s always bad in the good and good in the bad. He’s one of the most consistent people when it comes to finding the middle ground.”
Kiger said that is one of his best traits for not just the kids, but the coaches as well.
“I probably get too jacked up and my emotions can be up and down,” said Kiger. “He taught us that the highs are never going to stay high and the lows are going to never stay low. Nobody questions his passion and commitment. You watch him involved in every aspect and he does a great job of keeping everyone in the middle zone.”
In 2013, Mattoon won the Apollo Conference with a perfect 5-0 record. It was part of a string of four consecutive playoff berths. Mattoon just missed the playoffs in 2016 despite a 5-4 record. After a 2-7 record in 2017, the team made the playoffs again in 2018.
After a 2-7 record in 2019, no playoffs in 2020 due to COVID, and a 3-5 record entering the final game, Johnson currently owns a 49-70 overall record, just 13 wins off Temples for the most in school history.
Kiger says that the overall record doesn’t give the whole story and he would tell anyone outside of the community to proceed with caution before bringing up the wins and losses.
“There’s going to be a void for sure once he’s gone,” said Kiger. “I think the average person on the outside of the community will look at his overall record and not see the full picture and that’s unfortunate. For those people who didn’t have the opportunity to get to know him, he’s always good to talk with and he cares about the young person.”
Kiger said that the kids have always been the priority for Johnson. He said that the biggest void Mattoon football will have is Johnson’s ability to notice the little things that could be bothering the players and how to get them to bounce back from adversity.
“He has this way of recognizing when a kid is struggling or just having an off day,” said Kiger. “He’ll make a joke or find some way to get them to relax. He teaches them that there is more to life than the game. I think that is one of the most consistent faces those younger kids are going to miss. At the end of the day, we all know Troy is going to continue to cheer on Mattoon football from a distance.”
Kimbro said the team is going to lose a great offensive mind from a football standpoint, but, after 12 years together, it’s going to feel different.
“The game planning,” said Kimbro. “He is just super creative and it’s unreal how he comes up with things. Typically, they work. Then, there’s the friendship of over 12 years that I will cherish forever. It’s not going to end once he leaves, but I’m proud to call him my friend, but also more of a mentor, too.”