By Kyle Daubs
Should we be surprised that Troy Johnson had no idea that he accomplished a major milestone this season?
The calm Mattoon Green Wave head coach has always tried to find the middle path. His assistant describes their leader as someone who always keeps everything in perspective. Try to find the middle ground. Don’t let the highs get too high and the lows never too low.
With that said, when Mattoon defeated 2020 Apollo Conference champion Effingham on Week 4, it was Johnson’s 100th career victory and he didn’t even have a clue.
“I honestly don’t know my overall record,” said Johnson with a laugh. “I had no clue.”
When you combine the 52-14 record in six years at Marshall and the 49-70 record in 13 seasons heading into Friday’s finale with Mattoon, Johnson has accumulated a 101-84 record in 19 seasons as a head coach for high school football. When you combine the years of college coaching, assistant coaching, and volunteer work, Johnson has surpassed over 30 years of dedication to the sport.
So, no we aren’t surprised that he didn’t know he is an exclusive member of the 100-win club. It’s also not surprising that he got there either.
Johnson began his tenure as the head coach at Marshall High School in 2002. The team went undefeated in the regular season before finishing 10-1. Marshall rattled off five more playoff appearances, including the 2007 season where the team qualified for the Elite 8 in a 10-2 season.
The 2007 season was also the same year that Mattoon was just one two-point conversion away from making the Elite 8 to play Charleston in the Class 5A playoffs. After the season, Johnson accepted a job coaching linebackers at Indiana State University, but had always kept Mattoon in the back of his mind once Gerald Temples resigned at the season’s end.
“I had talked to John Schuler on the phone about Mattoon. I loved Mattoon. I thought their facilities were awesome,” said Johnson. “I told John that if the job had opened up in four years to give me a call.”
Johnson recalls ISU as a place he thought would be his dream job. His son, Travis, was on the football team, while his daughter was working in the athletic department. His wife had her job near Terre Haute. It was a pretty good setup.
However, as time passed, Johnson found that the job was not best for him. Had the staff turned the program around like they hoped, it would be a stepping stone and Johnson didn’t want to move the family around the country. When Nat Zunkel resigned after a 2-7 record in 2008, Schuler gave Johnson another call.
“I told him he was four years too early,” said Johnson. “He said the job was open. It was going to be a good fit. I just loved the people there were here in Mattoon.”
Johnson left Indiana State to return to the high school ranks, but the family never moved from their home in Terre Haute. Johnson’s wife, Cindy, has kept her job, while Johnson has made the drive to Mattoon each day. According to Johnson, he was not going to ask her to drive each day.
“She’s always been on my side no matter what,” said Johnson. “The original plan was to move out and not drive for 13 years and be a part of the community, but it never panned out. I wasn’t going to ask her to get up and change her job. I couldn’t do that to her, so I got up in dark to leave and come home in dark. It’s just been my life. Driving is no big deal. My parents were close by. My daughter was close by. Being close to the family is important to me.”
When Johnson looks back at the 100-plus wins in his career, he will be the first person to tell you that not all of that was possible without the support of his wife.
“She’s been through some business,” said Johnson “Basically, she was a single parent when the kids were little. I would try to work the night shift and keep the kids up, but she has sacrificed a lot for sure. We’ve been married since 1984 and I am still not sure why she keeps me around.”
When Johnson first started coaching at Mattoon, he could have easily copped out and left. The first three years of Johnson’s tenure at Mattoon were strenuous, to say the least. Mattoon finished 2-7 the first three seasons against some quality teams in the Big 12 Conference.
Johnson could have left. After all, he lost more games in three seasons than he did in his six-year career at Marshall, but Johnson looks back on those times and echoes similar sentiments as assistant coach Jarad Kimbro that those were some good memories.
“We had some good times back then,” said Johnson. “You just have to keep everything into perspective. You want to watch the kids move forward. For those who want to compete and win, sometimes that is not in the cards. You have to celebrate the little things. There were times we were celebrating first downs.”
Kimbro is someone that Johnson refers to as a “life friend” after 13 years of working together. When Johnson was initially hired, Kimbro applied for the job but was not selected. Instead of leaving, he stayed on as the team’s defensive coordinator. When officially hired, Johnson said that he was the first person he wanted to talk to about the direction of the team.
“Kimbro has been on board since day one,” said Johnson. “When we talked, he said he didn’t care who got the job as long as it was someone capable of doing it. It’s been a lot of fun with him. I like to throw the ball a lot and get a lot of kids involved. Unfortunately, when it’s an incomplete pass, the clock stops, which I’m sure frustrated him at times. I’m just really fortunate to have had him around for all these years. He has been my right-hand man for 13 years. I couldn’t have asked for a better guy.”
In 2012, Mattoon made the move to the Apollo Conference. The move panned out well for the Green Wave, who qualified for their first playoff appearance since 2007 that year. The following year, headlined by the likes of Jared Pilson, Malik Joyner, and Jacob Harris, the Green Wave finished the Apollo with a perfect 5-0 record and a 7-2 record in the regular season.
In the playoffs, Mattoon lost a heartbreaker 43-42 to Mt. Vernon, which featured a failed two-point conversion.
“I think about it a lot,” said Johnson. “But, if you go through my career and I am given the choice between a tie or a win, I am going to go for the win. That is just the way I am. There’s an old saying that tying is like kissing your sister. Sometimes, you have to determine where you are in the game and we felt we could win.”
Johnson still remembers taking a timeout right before the play and asking what the players wanted to do.
“I took it because I wanted to make sure the kids were on board,” said Johnson. “If they weren’t, we might not have gone for it. We felt really good about it at the moment, but it didn’t work out. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s just how life is and you got to move on from it.”
Mattoon qualified for the playoffs in 2014 and 2015, and just missed making the playoffs in 2016 despite a 5-4 record. After a 2-7 season, the Green Wave qualified for the playoffs in 2018 and recorded their first playoff victory since 2007 with a 28-24 win over Mascoutah. Mattoon hasn’t made the playoffs since then.
When looking back, Johnson can’t pinpoint a special season. Instead, his focus is more on the people.
“I’ve been so blessed to have so many good players and some many good people,” said Johnson. “I don’t think I can pick a favorite year because we have had so many good people. There are times you have overachieving kids. Other times, you have kids who are maybe mediocre and you try to make them good. There might be some players who are bottom level and you try to make them mediocre. Other times, you have a special group. Watching the kids grow is real fun.”
Johnson used the term “blessed” on multiple occasions when talking about Mattoon as a whole. Not too many coaches get to walk out on their terms, especially if you have a losing record. Athletic Director, David Vieth, called Johnson the “rock” of the football program. Johnson couldn’t be more thankful for the support he has had not just from the administration, but the community in general.
“It’s a testament to the people I work for,” said Johnson. “Nobody ever panicked. I try to look at one game at a time. The truth is that when I interviewed for the job, I never promised wins or losses. I promised that my teams would play hard, work hard, and have some fun along the way. Then, we will let the cards fall where they may.”
Johnson is not sure what he is going to do in retirement just yet. He doesn’t want to “lockdown” anything. He suggested maybe some trips to Florida. He said he will be giving his wife some time. He said that he will keep an eye on Mattoon football in the future.
He knows that retirement won’t shut off the switch, though. He is going to miss everything from the kids to the people.
“I’m going to miss everything,” said Johnson. “The kids and meeting new people are one of the greatest things about the job. You generally learn that there are a lot of good people out there. I’ve been doing this for 34 years and I think I have only really worked for about a year and a half. The rest of the time I have never really considered it work. I’ve looked forward to going to work here in Mattoon. You learn that you are a product of your environment. Every environment I have been a part of has helped me grow.”