Greg Hansen: Like mentor Friedli, Johnson earns title

2012-11-26T00:00:00Z 2012-11-26T06:51:03Z Greg Hansen: Like mentor Friedli, Johnson earns titleGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 26, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Somewhere between Saturday's on-field trophy presentation, a celebratory dinner at a Phoenix In-N-Out Burger and a midnight ride to Tucson, Matt Johnson thought back to all the bills he had paid.

That's what the Ironwood Ridge High School coach calls the progression of winning a state football title. Paying bills. There's a price for every step of the process.

Before he conked out Sunday, getting to bed a few minutes before sunrise, Johnson thought of his first season as a head coach, 2003, at Rincon/University, when the bill-paying began and he got his first real look at what a state championship team looked like.

His Rangers trailed Sunnyside 82-12 and it was still in the third quarter. The Blue Devils could've scored 100 that night, or maybe 120, but on the way to the 2003 state title, Sunnyside coach Richard Sanchez pulled his starters and told his team that 82 was enough.

That wasn't just a bill, it was a balloon payment.

"I understand it takes time to get here, to the state title,'' Johnson said Sunday, still aglow of the Nighthawks' 27-3 win over Peoria Centennial for the Division II state crown. "I thought it might take a couple of more years - my staff and I thought it might be a 10-to-1 shot - but I knew we were close."

Not just close, but paid-in-full.

One of the first things he did Sunday morning was to go back to his beginnings, to his mentor, his high school coach, Hall of Famer Vern Friedli, and arrange to meet him today. It's part of the process of being a state champ. You just don't pay bills, you pay respect.

"It would be a pretty special thing for me, to have my picture taken with coach Friedli," Johnson said. "I don't show my emotions a lot, so I'm going to try to make it through the day without crying."

Twenty-five years ago, he was a middle-school lineman who admired Friedli's Amphitheater powerhouses. His late father, J.J. Johnson, a comptroller at Coca-Cola, took Matt to the school's weight room, introduced him to Friedli and made the first payment for his son's future.

J.J. and Jean Johnson joined the Amphi booster club that year, before Matt was in high school, and together followed the Panthers to the state playoffs. His parents volunteered to work in the snack bar. This wasn't just an experiment; they would be all-in.

But by the time Matt became eligible to play for the Panthers, he wasn't in shape. The first bill came due.

"Matt was overweight, so we had a talk," Friedli said Sunday. "He went on a diet and lost 50 pounds. He changed himself so much that kids would walk down the hallway at school and say, 'Who's that?' Nobody recognized him. Well, they found out who he was.

"Doing things the right way appealed to him. He's quite a package; I couldn't be more proud," added Friedli, who also paid his dues coaching at Morenci, Casa Grande and San Manuel before winning a state title at Amphi in 1979.

Johnson started at tackle in the 1990 state championship game (Amphi lost to Mesa 21-7), played football and graduated from NAU, and later had two stints on Friedli's staff before going out on his own, at Rincon, which hadn't been in the state playoffs since 1989.

How's that for starting at the bottom?

Now, after four seasons at Ironwood Ridge, with a state title and two trips to the state semifinals, Johnson has forged his own legend. He has done it much the way Friedli did it, family first and life-before-football.

On paper, the Nighthawks had about 25 fewer players than Centennial, a three-time state champion. Centennial was bigger and faster, but not, in the end, better.

On Sunday, Johnson spoke not about his team's defensive prowess and its improbable November run through the playoffs, but about "my 10 seniors who have GPA's of 3.6 or higher.''

In September, after turning the state's head with provocative back-to-back wins over juggernauts Tempe Marcos de Niza and Centennial, Johnson gathered his team and talked not about being ranked No. 1, which they were, but about life.

Ironwood Ridge senior receiver Cole Kuglitsch's mother was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer. Junior defensive back Sam Devoy's grandfather, who had raised him, died. Another player's parents had begun divorce proceedings.

"We talked about how nice it is to win, and that for a specific time each week our focus should be on football," Johnson remembers, "but I told them their families and our friendships are more important than the scoreboard.

"I've told my wife how inspirational these kids are to me, and that the reason I coach high school football isn't to win games, or to make a lot of money, but to try to help and influence the kids to do things the right way, the way coach Friedli taught me 20 years ago.

"If I can leave even 10 percent of the legacy that coach Friedli left, I'll be happy."

Johnson slept three hours Sunday. When he awoke, it had sunk in. The Ironwood Ridge Nighthawks were state champs.

"It's just a crazy journey," he said. "I can't wait to meet with the sophomores and juniors at 7 Monday morning."

Even now, there are more bills to be paid.

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