With what he accomplished in building the football program at Pioneer, it was just a matter of time before Mike Johnson was inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame as a coach.
That became official last Saturday night, as the current Logansport coach was inducted during ceremonies held at Angie’s Catering & Cakes.
Johnson’s high school coach at Wes-Del, Jerry Keesling, did the honors of inducting Johnson into the Hall of Fame. It was in 1985 during Johnson’s senior year of high school when Keesling told Johnson that he should be a coach.
Johnson recalled the story during his speech.
“There’s no way I would have been a football coach had it not been for Jerry Keesling. I was on my way to Ball State University and I was going to be an accountant, I was going to be a CPA and I was going to make a lot of money and I was going to live the good life,” Johnson said. “It was on the wrestling mat my senior year in high school, I had just done a three-step drop and then a five-step drop. He said, ‘How do you know that?’ And I said, ‘I’ve been watching the 9ers and I paid attention in practice.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you come back and coach our freshman football team?’ So actually at the age of 17, coach Keesling gave me my first coaching job. I actually graduated from high school at 17 years of age. I went to my first coaching clinic when I was still in high school and that was the Purdue clinic. Coach Keesling took me to the Purdue clinic with him and it changed my life.
“So I came back and coached freshman football and within two years he made me the offensive coordinator. Even though I didn’t know anything about football, but he believed in me. I look back now and I think, I had no idea what I knew about football at that point in time after coaching for two years and he made me the offensive coordinator at the varsity level and that was it. I changed my major, went into education and said I wanted to coach football. So I blame you then Jerry for this.”
Johnson was hired at Pioneer prior to the 1991 season. At that point, the Pioneer program, which was started in 1979, had won no conference or sectional titles.
Johnson went 3-8, 2-8, 5-5, 2-7 and 3-7 in his first five seasons at Pioneer. His first winning season was when the Panthers went 6-3 in 1996. They then went 15-0 and won their first state championship in 1997.
“For me that ’97 season was a remarkable club just because of how things developed and come quickly through the Pioneer ranks,” former radio broadcaster Mike Montgomery said during his remarks. “I came in in ’87, in ’88 they started talking Pioneer football, they were talking about getting rid of Pioneer football. That was a lot of the scuttlebutt that this wasn’t going to last, so they bring in this young guy. I think some were thinking this thing will be over in a few years. But little did they know, that ’97 season was a great run.”
Twin Lakes football coach Scott Mannering, a Hall of Fame coach himself, recalled talking to the Pioneer principal at the time, George Hainje a Lewis Cass grad, about hiring Johnson.
“He said, ‘We hired a kid, he’s right out of college. I don’t know if he knows anything but he can teach English so maybe he can read poetry to the boys,’” Mannering said.
“But after that state championship year, one of my assistants and I called Mike, we wanted to learn the wing-T offense and if he’d be kind enough to work with us. He said, ‘Yeah come by my apartment.' He had an apartment across from Logansport Stadium there. In a couple hours, Scott Rouch was my assistant, he couldn’t take enough notes, the blocking rules, the practice drills, the organization was just incredible. I was amazed that you can furnish and decorate an apartment with 50 pizza boxes. He was focused, that was what he did.”
Johnson said a turning point of the program occurred prior to his fourth season in 1994 when he hired Bob Brock as an assistant coach.
“Sometimes everything just kind of aligns and at the time we needed Bob Brock at Pioneer to make our football program successful,” he said. “We were running an offense and figuring that out and we still hadn’t had any kind of defensive success whatsoever. Low and behold, he fell out of the sky and right into our lap, we had a guy who knew defense and could coach. It was perfect timing and the stars aligned and we got somebody who could teach me how to coach defense. He taught me how to script practice, he taught me how to stay organized in practice and he taught me how to stay on time in practice. Coach, we appreciate it. You’ll never know how valuable and influential you were for me as a coach.”
During his remarks, Brock, a former principal at Pioneer, looked back fondly on his time coaching alongside Johnson.
“In my opinion tonight is an overdue tribute to an excellent coach. There are some outstanding former players here and coaches,” Brock said. “I’m proud to have had the opportunity to coach alongside Mike. He’s a teacher, a mentor, a father figure. Mike has influenced hundreds of kids. They’re our most precious resource. I’m glad he’s in coaching. This is a man you want on your side, your son to play for. My three sons played for him, my daughter was a manager.
“Congratulations Mike for this Indiana Football Hall of Fame honor. I’m proud of you and proud to call you my friend.”
Johnson’s run of success at Pioneer was nothing short of remarkable.
In 25 seasons, he compiled a 214-78 record and won eight sectional, four regional and two semistate championships and the state championship in 1997. He coached 16 Indiana North All-Stars, three Mr. Football finalists and one Mr. Football, Jack Kiser, whom he coached his freshman season in 2015.
Johnson stunned many in November of 2015 when he announced that he was leaving Pioneer to accept a new challenge at Logansport. One of the reasons it was so surprising was the amount of talent he was leaving behind.
Adam Berry knew he was stepping into a good situation when he was hired as the next Pioneer head coach. Berry has gone 44-1 in three seasons with the only loss coming in the 2016 state championship game. He has guided the Panthers to back-to-back state championships in Class A and they will compete in Class 2A the next two seasons due to the IHSAA’s success factor.
“We’re very thankful for what coach Johnson has done for our program,” Berry said. “I’m very thankful that he left for Logansport so I could coach that Mr. Football for my first three seasons as head coach. Once again, I’m truly thankful for that. We wish him nothing but the best at Logansport, and we know just by seeing him in the summer with the guys that they’re starting to buy-in and they’re improving every year and we know he’s going to get that thing turned around.”
Berry was the Panthers’ starting quarterback in 2004 and 2005 under Johnson. He went on to graduate from Ball State in 2010. He came back to Pioneer after college and coached the junior high program before becoming a varsity assistant for the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
“I didn’t play football in college or anything, so all I knew is what coach Johnson knew or what he taught us. Obviously it has worked for Pioneer and us overall,” he said.
Berry recalled growing up in the Pioneer system.
“After that ’97 season, our grade really wanted to play football. We were interested and we wanted to play for coach Johnson. He helped spark that interest. He kept encouraging us to continue to play. He saw something special with us. We were never over .500 in youth league, but he kept coming to camps, helping us learn the game and helping us love the game. That’s what made us want to continue to play football. We ended up being pretty successful in high school."
The wing-T is still the Panthers’ base offense, Berry added.
“We really are fortunate because we might be that four- or five-wide, throwing the ball around and seeing the flashing lights and all the excitement,” he said. “The wing-T has been a staple for Pioneer. It starts with the youth league program. We teach the same stuff. He taught us the same stuff as youth league all the way through junior high all the way through high school. That’s what’s made our program really special.
“In my high school years there were things we didn’t quite understand as players that now as coaches we do. In the stands on the sidelines we’d always hear people yell, ‘Turn the page.’ We heard them saying, “Turn the page,’ meaning throw the ball. I was the quarterback and I felt the same thing, I felt like we should throw the ball. You see my highlight film back in ’04, ’05, I completed every one of my passes on that highlight film, so I felt like we should throw it all the time. But really that’s what made us special and I’m the same way. If we can run the ball every single play we’re going to. If we don’t have to throw the ball and we can still gain yards, we’re going to be pretty successful.”
Six other Hall of Fame coaches were in attendance, including Dave Land, who started the Wes-Del program, Mannering, former Delphi coach Vince Burpo, former Winamac coach Tim Roth, former Crown Point, Highland and Attica coach Brad Smith and current Sheridan coach Bud Wright, the state’s all-time winningest coach with 418 wins in 54 seasons.
“I guess in order to get to the Hall of Fame you have to win some games and have to win some championships along the way,” Johnson said. “Although at one point in time I probably thought I could do that all by myself, that I was a good enough coach that I could be responsible for that and I could get in the Hall of Fame. I soon found out that you really can’t play football at a high level of success without great help, without great coaches and certainly without great and talented players to play the game at a successful level.
“So I want to thank all the assistant coaches, the current assistant coaches and all the great players who have played for us over 28 years now.”
Montgomery looks at the amount of success Pioneer football has had with astonishment.
“Pioneer hasn’t had a losing season since 1995. That’s incredible, especially in single A football and it’s not a single A school where you’re able to recruit kids in. You’re using the kids that are in your area,” he said. “So not a losing season since ’95, and they haven’t had four losses in a season since 2001, in that season you lost in the semistate. They were 6-3 in the regular season and lost in the semistate that year. So I know the folks in Royal Center and Lucerne and those areas, you’ve been spoiled over the years. Since that year in 2001, they’ve lost no fewer than three games in an 18-year span. So that tells you what coach Johnson, and I know he thinks a lot of his assistant coaches, what they have done to a program that every single year for two decades going on three, have had that kind of success year in and year out, so you are commended.”
Another local radio man, Milt Hess, is also astounded.
“I went to a practice, it was during the state championship year, I was going to interview him to get a pregame show recorded,” Hess said. “I sat there and watched practice and there was 45 minutes at least in just that practice dedicated to just blocking, just teaching technique, footwork, positioning, schemes. And I had not seen that before. That was the importance of blocking. It may not seem like a big deal but from that team you have to realize, this team was outsized every time they took the field. They were smaller than every team they played that year. And so for them to know how to block and overcome their size differential, they had to know what to do, that was being taught. That impressed me on how he taught them to overcome their lack of size and turn it into an advantage, however they were really fast and really smart, but they knew what to do.
“I think you have to go back to really recently where size has come into play at Pioneer. For many years they were outsized. So this blocking part really did impress me.
“The other thing that impresses me is the youth league program. If you want to know why they’re winning state championships at the high school level, go watch their youth team play. It’s a miniature version of their high school team. My son played youth league football back when Logansport had four youth league teams and nobody wanted to play Pioneer because they were dominating. If you lost 7-0 in youth league football to Pioneer, that was a win. They were taught this. These players haven’t all of a sudden become good football players in high school. They’ve developed it.”
In his first three seasons at Logansport, Johnson has went 2-8, 5-5 and 4-6 while also working in his day job as an advanced physical conditioning teacher at LHS, which has a state of the art weight room completed in 2016.
“Coach [Don] Baldini and coach [Lee] Gaumer were two other inspirational guys. Now that I’m a part of Logansport football history with them, I have more respect for the influence they had in this community and on their players than ever before,” Johnson said. “As a matter of fact, we open each season and we play for the Baldini Trophy and we open with Peru and play in the state’s longest rivalry game, and we just wanted to let coach Baldini know that we always tell our kids we cannot be unsuccessful in this game because it bears our coach’s name. Coach Baldini, if you’ve never met him, is a great man and a great coach and is well respected in this community.”
Johnson is currently the 13th winningest active coach in Indiana with 225 career wins.
He said he plans to continue coaching long enough to coach his sons Joe, 7, and Jake, 5.
He became emotional at the end of his speech.
“The most important influences are right in this room, my brothers and sister,” he said. “It is an honor for me to become a member of the Indiana Football Hall of Fame. It’s an honor for me to get to coach the greatest sport ever played. There is great value in the game of football. The game has taken some hard knocks recently. There is a debate of whether or not we should even play.
“I think we need football. Our young men need the game of football to challenge themselves physically, mentally, spiritually. Our young men need the game to learn to not only test themselves but learn how to become a member of a team. The game of football is a great way for them to learn that being a member of a team carries with it responsibilities and obligations more so than individual rights and entitlements. I hope to continue coaching long enough so that I can coach Joe and Jake Johnson and they can experience the same joys and learn the same lessons that we all did from football.”