Sometimes a man has to make a choice. Some choices are difficult, they affect family, they have to do with your allegiances and they are typically driven by something you are passionate about. In 2006 Mike Johnston made a choice, that choice had to do with family and other personal considerations. He decided to end his coaching career at Eagle Point High School. The personal side of that decision had a definite upside for Johnston, he would now have time to watch his daughter Reilly play volleyball at Humbolt State University.
Mike had coached in Eagle Point since 1978 and although not every year brought winning records and titles, he was a consistent figure on an Eagle Point coaching staff that did some remarkable things. Remember 1985, Eagle Point vs. Medford. This was before the split to North and South Medford when the school was commonly referred to as the University of Medford. Mike Johnston was on the sidelines with head coach Dick Cloud when Eagle Point, one of the smallest 4A teams in the state, beat the vaunted Medford Black Tornado. The only time in Eagle Point history we ever beat Medford. Remember the amazing years in 94 & 95, the “mud-bowl” in the state quarter-finals with Bend. Coach Johnston getting ejected from the game for having 2 equipment violations, the come-back in the second half of the State Semi-Final game at Thurston and coming just a few points short of beating Roseburg for the State Championship.
I’m not a journalist, so I don’t have to stick to many real rules of journalism. That being the case some of this story will be written directly from my perspective. I have to say that seeing the way Coach Johnston handled himself on that day against Bend set a new level for class. That level of class is not always present on the sidelines and Johnston has always set a good example for students and for the community.
Really, for me that is where this story starts regarding Mike Johnston. I covered Eagle Point football for about 10 years. I’ve seen them lose games, sometimes on Friday nights I couldn’t get the words, “punt team” out of my head. But that late fall day, during the Bend game was when I really found out what Mike Johnston was all about. It was standing room only at Eagle Stadium, it was dumping rain and for whatever reason, one of the Eagle’s linemen didn’t have his hip pad in. The Bend coaching staff saw it, pointed it out to a referee and with a single flag (this was the second equipment penalty on the Eagles), the head coach for the Eagles was ejected from the game
Some coaches that would have gone ballistic, would have screamed, cussed and thrown a tantrum. Mike Johnston isn’t what you’d call a saint, none of us are, but on that rainy day with 3-4″ of mud on the sidelines and a trip deep into the State 4-A playoffs on the line, he called his defense together, calmed them down, gave them their marching orders and simply walked off the field.
According to current Eagle Point head football coach and former Eagle Point Eagle, Jacob Schauffler, “he told Brad Gray” (the leader of Eagle Point’s defense), “that everything is going to be alright, you guys have been coached all year to fly around and play hard and you know what to do.”
During the game most people, including the players, didn’t notice but Johnston had taken up a position on top of the school’s gym and was watching the game. During half-time he met the team in the locker room and helped make adjustments to the defense that eventually led to Eagle Point beating Bend and moving on to the semi-finals.
This isn’t a story about Mike Johnston’s history with Eagle Point, it’s a story about an Eagle Point resident, former coach, current teacher and community member. It’s a story about how one person can touch many lives, and mainly about one of the best defensive coordinators in the valley.
Johnston’s decision to stop coaching was obviously a tough decision, it took him off the field and for Eagle Point it took nearly 30 years of coaching experience off the sidelines. But all decisions have repercussions and this one ended up being to the benefit of the South Medford Panthers. The other side-benefit was that it would put Mike and his son, Shaun, coaching together on the same sideline for the first time. Another consideration was that he’d miss his daughter’s volleyball. When he talked to her and mentioned that he wouldn’t be able to go to as many games her response was, “dad, you need to coach, you’re a football coach.”
Johnston’s son isn’t the only former player that he’s helped get into coaching. This year Jacob Schauffler was named head coach at Eagle Point. “Allen Barber made a great decision when he selected Jake to take over the football program,” said Johnston. “I’m very close to Jake, he feels like family I think Eagle Point did a wonderful thing hiring him. Bringing him in as head coach will help build a long lasting solid foundation… he’s a real man of character, very positive and was an outstanding student.”
Teacher has many different meanings, in this case it refers not only to teaching Social Studies, it means teaching boys to become young men. With some of those young men following Johnston into coaching and teaching. Some of those men who have made that same journey into coaching and/or teaching are Joe Meerten (Eagle Point Assistant), Shaun Johnston (South Medford Assistant), Jacob Schauffler (Eagle Point Head Coach), Dan Woodward (South Medford Freshman Coach), Sean Grady (Eagle Point Assistant) and Tyson Wolf (Eagle Point Assistant) to name a few. Of note also, Meerten is the EPHS disciplinarian and Wolf is the attendance coordinator, Schauffler, Shaun Johnston and Dan Woodward all teach.
“He (Mike) and I have a really unique relationship, as I grew up, he and my dad were extremely good friends,” remarked Schauffler. “I grew up knowing him as a guy before I ever knew him as a coach. Then later he became both my coach and my teacher.”
Another change that Eagle Point made in their coaching staff was to bring back long-time offensive coordinator Jef McClellan. He spent many years coaching with Johnston and his respect is obvious. “He’s all about kids, he gets kids to do a little bit more than they think they can do.” Schauffler backed those comments up, “at our coaches meeting at the beginning of the year, there were a number of us that stood up and credited Mike Johnston with getting us into teaching and coaching. I’m teaching and coaching today because he recognized that I could do it before I did.”
Not long after Johnston stopped coaching at Eagle Point, South Medford’s Defensive Coordinator decided to step down. As it was explained to me by Shaun Johnston, he and South Medford Head Coach Bill Singler brought up the idea of Johnston coaching at South at nearly the same time. South has had a very strong football program in recent years, but they were always known for their prolific offense and not their defense.
Of course hindsight is always 20-20, but the South program seemed to be a perfect fit for Johnston. In conversations with Mike, Shaun and Eagle Point Offensive Coordinator Jef McClelland we all remembered that even if Eagle Point struggled to win games, the defense was always one to be feared. One game in particular that I remember was at Grants Pass in the late 90s. Eagle Point lost the game, but the physical presence that the smaller Eagle Point squad brought to the table was lost on no one. Even the most die-hard Grants Pass fans were impressed with how the Eagles flew around the field and beat them up physically even when the Cavemen were winning the game.
That kind of physical presence is what South Medford was looking for and Singler is enjoying it, “The last couple years we’ve developed an attitude where we’re talking about not only the offense but people are talking about our defense,” said Coach Singler.
Johnston’s theory on playing defense is simple, as he puts it, “I coach them to play hard and never give an inch.” That kind of mind-set has spread to the South Medford sidelines. Now days, things are as exciting with the crowd and the team when the defense is on the field as it is when South is flying around on Offense. The combined offense and defense that Singler and Johnston put together enabled South to reach the State Quarter-Finals for the second year in a row.
The question that I had was how could a coach with 28 years with Eagle Point, a die-hard Eagle, someone who would do everything he coul
d to help his team win any game, especially a Medford team… how could he go and coach at South?
There are a couple things that made it possible. First is with the re-classification the OSAA did, Eagle Point won’t end up playing South. Johnston was adamant that, “I wouldn’t do this at just any local school, it’s easier that S. and Eagle Point don’t play each other in the same conference.” The other key is the support that Johnston has gotten from the administration at Eagle Point. “It’s great having the support of my Principal and Superintendent. They’ve been totally supportive, and I do my best to make sure I don’t short-change Eagle Point.”
Part of making sure he doesn’t short his school or his students has to do with his schedule. The high school day ends at 2:50, Johnston typically stays until 3:30 to finish work or work with students. Then he’s off to South for a 4 p.m. practice. South has played games as far away as Redding, CA or Vancouver, WA, so on those days, he finishes school and jumps in his personal car to meet the team at the game. If the game is too far to drive (as in the Vancouver game), he worked with Eagle Point Principal Allen Barber to use personal days as needed.
When asked if there might be any animosity with the coaching or staff or students at Eagle Point, Johnston said, “no, everyone at both Eagle Point and South have been very supportive, the coaching staff at Eagle Point is like family to me.” South Medford has also been very accommodating to Johnston’s wife, Tina. “Tina was welcomed right from the start, at games they’ll seek her out, buy her a hotdog and invite her to sit with them,” said Johnston.
At the beginning of the story I mentioned choices. I believe that when you make good choices things tend to work out well. In this case, Johnston made a tough decision to leave his coaching position at Eagle Point, then he made a tough decision to coach at South. The direct and semi-direct results of that decision are, an Eagle alum from our most successful team in recent history is EPHS head coach, Mike and his son share a sideline and work together on defense and hundreds of young men (not to mention the thousands he has coached at Eagle Point) will benefit from his coaching and mentoring.
Johnston’s last words as we were talking were pretty typical of him, simply because they weren’t about him, they were about Eagle Point. “The high school football team is still kind of the biggest thing around, Eagle Point has always been very positive and have supported our football team. The quicker the community comes together and supports Schauffler the quicker you will see a lot of wins from his team.”
It appears that the spider-web of things that resulted from Johnston’s decisions have made everyone winners. By Mike Leonard
for the Independent