St. Louis head football coach Mike Johns. (American Press Archives)
Last Modified: Thursday, November 07, 2013 9:19 PM
In 1966, Lyndon B. Johnson was president, the AFL agreed on a merger with the NFL and Mike Johns was beginning his coaching career.
Johns had recently graduated from McNeese State and started coaching as an assistant at LaGrange Junior High.
Now, 48 years, 19 playoff appearances and 10 district championships later, Johns is stepping away from the sidelines. He will coach his last regular-season game tonight when St. Louis Catholic hosts Iota.
Much of Johns’ success came via the 160 games he’s won as a head coach, but that’s not his source of pride.
“I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach and teach so many outstanding kids over the past 48 years and it is always great to see so many grow up and become outstanding young men in the community and see them become successful,” Johns wrote in an email. “That is what makes coaching such a great career.”
Johns worked as an assistant coach at LaGrange and Sam Houston high schools until 1989, when he became head coach at LaGrange.
“He’s extremely patient when it comes to things like that,” said Tommy Johns, one of Johns’ two sons and an assistant coach at St. Louis. “He started at junior high and worked all the way up to 5A head coach. It’s pretty special. He waited his turn, it’s no question. He got passed up several times on head coaching opportunities, but he eventually got his opportunity and made the most of it.”
McNeese Sports Information Director Matthew Bonnette was on the first team Johns coached at LaGrange.
“It was quite a transition having one coach the first three years and having a new coach come in my senior year,” Bonnette said. “We were all kind of worried about what direction we’d be taking. He came in and the way he treated us, I just remember him being like a father figure. It was tremendous. It always stuck with me and he’s always meant a lot to me just because of the way he treated us.”
Many people who have played for or worked with Johns mention his role as a father figure. As Bobby Johns, Mike’s younger son who played for him at St. Louis, put it, “he doesn’t do the favoritism thing.”
“He doesn’t put up with any ifs, ands or buts about it. There’s no excuses. (Players) would get upset, but at the end of the day, not one person hated him for it. They all look back and respect him for that.”
It’s not just players who have learned from Johns throughout his career. St. Louis Athletic Director Jason Oertling has worked with Johns since he took over as Saints head coach in 2001.
“In this profession, where you see teams running the score up on another team or teams getting in fights, he’s always carried himself with so much respect,” Oertling said. “He cares not just about his own kids, but his opponents. He’s had a big influence on the kids that have come through this area, but also the coaches that have come through this area that have gone on to coach the way he taught them to coach.”
Johns said he’s been lucky to surround himself with great assistant coaches throughout the years and got plenty of support from his sons, as well as his wife Barbara.
For a coach with so many wins, Johns said one of his favorite coaching memories came in a loss.
“We played Hahnville in the (1994) 5A state semifinals at Cowboy Stadium and played before 13-14,000 people that night and lost a heartbreaker in overtime 28-27,” Johns said. “Hahnville was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in 5A and I was so proud of the way we played and also proud of my staff for an outstanding season and game.”
Despite a battle with throat cancer that has made it difficult for Johns to communicate verbally, he has continued to coach as long as possible.
Johns said he decided this season would be his last, and he would work to get his health back in order after many years fighting through health problems in order to continue coaching.
“I can’t describe how much he loves football, but he’s at the point where he realizes it’s time to step away and enjoy the rest of his life with his family,” Bobby said. “He’s ready for all that.”
Bonnette said Johns’ legacy will be “a piece of Southwest Louisiana football history.”
As for Johns’ last home game, don’t expect a flashy ceremony to celebrate his career.
“Nothing extravagant,” Tommy said. “That’s just how he is, he doesn’t like all that stuff. He just wants to go quietly and move on.”