Over the next 13 days, the Star will reveal our picks for Tucson’s best high school football coaches of all time. Our countdown continues today with Matt Johnson, who has helped turn Ironwood Ridge into one of the state’s premier programs.
No. 13 Matt Johnson
Schools: Ironwood Ridge, Catalina Foothills and Rincon/University
Years in coaching: 2003-06 and 2008-present
Local record: 72-44
Achievements: After spending four seasons as a head coach at Rincon/University and one at Catalina Foothills, Johnson took over at Ironwood Ridge and had immediate success. Gary Minor had led the Nighthawks to six straight postseason appearances and a trip to the state semifinals, leaving Johnson with some big shoes to fill. Johnson, an Amphitheater graduate who played under Vern Friedli, didn’t shy away from the task: He has amassed a 44-18 record at I-Ridge. In 2012, his fourth year with the program, Johnson helped the Nighthawks win their first state title and was named the Arizona Daily Star’s Coach of the Year.
Memorable moment: I-Ridge rattled off 27 straight points – including 20 in the second half – to top heavily-favored Peoria Centennial in the Division II state championship game 27-3 at Sun Devil Stadium in 2012, capturing its first state title to finish off a stellar 13-1 season. Senior linebacker Scott Simmons led the Nighthawks’ stingy defense and returned an interception for an 11-yard touchdown in the second half while Anthony Braunreiter rushed for 86 yards and two touchdowns, including a 36-yard score in the fourth quarter to put the exclamation point on the win.
However, it wasn’t until the closing seconds of the game, as senior quarterback Tyler Williams downed the ball for the final time and jogged toward the sideline, that Johnson realized what he and his team had just accomplished. The win marked the second time that season I-Ridge beat Centennial and was the first time since 2003 a Southern Arizona team beat a Phoenix-area school to win a state crown.
From the archives: “I truly believe we win six or seven games before we even take the field because the coaches work so hard. The team is a direct reflection of Matt, his work ethic and attitude. He is fearless and driven.” – Longtime assistant coach Kent Middleton in the Nov. 17, 2012 Arizona Daily Star
Big number: 3. Although all his postseason wins have come at I-Ridge, Johnson has led all three programs he’s coached to the state playoffs for a total of eight appearances. The Nighthawks have qualified in each of the last five seasons under Johnson, who also led Foothills to the postseason in 2008, his only season with the team. Prior to that, Johnson guided Rincon to the playoffs in 2005 and 2006 after it hadn’t qualified since 1989.
Coming up: Find out who is ranked No. 12 in Wednesday’s Star.