ELKHART — The word love isn’t often used when describing a former high school basketball coach or even a coach you served as an assistant under.
But Danny Randolph and Craig Sears had no trouble using the word when describing former Elkhart Memorial and Concord boys basketball coach Steve Johnson, who passed away Saturday, Dec. 21, after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Johnson was 71.
Johnson was best known for his two coaching stints at Memorial, where he won four Elkhart Sectional titles and also coached in one of the biggest games of all-time at Elkhart’s historic North Side Gym — an excruciating three-point loss to eventual state champion Plymouth in the 1982 regional title game in front of a standing-room only crowd.
Johnson began his coaching career at Concord in 1968 and was the head coach of the Minutemen until 1972. He then coached at Batesville High School for two years, before his first stint at Memorial from 1978 until 1983, when he left coaching to go into private business. He returned as head coach of the Crimson Chargers from 1994 until 2006. He also served as an assistant coach under Homer Drew at Valparaiso University from 1990 to 1994.
His career coaching record as a head coach was 366-259. He was the Northern Lakes Conference Coach of the Year in 2002 and 2006 and is a member of the Elkhart County Hall of Fame.
But to Randolph, now the head golf coach at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fl., all those accomplishments pale in comparison to the person that Johnson was.
“I loved the guy, I really did,” Randolph said on Saturday. “I had lunch with him back in June and he was just so enthusiastic about life and the fact that he was still able to influence so many people, so for him to pass away so quickly is quite a shock. But it also really helps me to really appreciate the chance that I had to see him last spring.”
Randolph played for Johnson in the 1994-95 and 95-96 seasons and he says he always remained grateful for the way Johnson treated him during those years. “Not only was he a great coach, and his record speaks for itself, but he always backed me and gave me the support I needed to become a better player,” Randolph said. “I will miss him, but he’s no longer suffering and he’ll be coaching in a better place now.”
Craig Sears was a team manager under Johnson during his first stint at Memorial and later served as an assistant coach for Johnson’s Crimson Charger teams in the 90s and 2000s. Sears is now the head softball coach at Memorial.
“The first two words I think of when I remember coach Johnson was intensity and passion,” Sears said. “I believe he had one of the greatest basketball minds I’ve ever known and he knew the commitment it took to win basketball games. He was a great role model for me and I still use things I learned from him today.”
Sears remembered scouting for Johnson and having to prepare seven-to-eight page reports for upcoming opponents
“Because of the prep work he did, we spent as much time scouting as we did coaching kids,” Sears said. “I mean he not only wanted to know if the kid was left-handed or right-handed and which way he dribbled, but I think he cared if the player chewed gum. He’d even have us go down on the floor to try and see if a team was adding inches to a kid’s size. He wanted to know if the kid was 6-foot-1 or maybe just 5-11.”
Sears said he spoke to Johnson on Tuesday, Dec. 17, and had planned to go and see him again Sunday, before learning Johnson had passed away.
“I knew he wasn’t doing well, even though he was alert and able to talk pretty well,” Sears said. “When I left, I told him I loved him and that I’d see him on Sunday. Unfortunately, that won’t happen now.”
Jimtown girls basketball coach Gene Johnson played for Steve Johnson at Concord and remembered him as a fiery and demanding young coach.
“Concord was his first high school coaching job, and back then it was okay to yell at kids and he did his share of that,” Gene Johnson remembered. “He was very big on fundamentals, but if you wanted to play, you had to play hard all the time and really be in great condition. He taught me a lot of things I wanted to do as a coach and a few I didn’t. But I think that’s true of every coach you play for.”
Longtime coach Dan Gunn had his share of battles against Johnson’s Crimson Charger teams when Gunn coached at Penn and later at NorthWood.
“The main thing was, Steve was just a really top-notch person,” Gunn said. “He was always great at finding a weakness in your team and trying to exploit it all night. You knew when you were getting ready to play Memorial that they would be well schooled and disciplined.”
While Dean Foster was the head coach at Elkhart Central, Johnson was at Memorial, which meant the two veteran coaches shared a home court — North Side Gym — which wasn’t always easy for either coach. However, Foster had a great appreciation for Johnson and the two friends spoke about life and basketball just a few weeks ago.
“I always really appreciated the way Steve got the most out of his players,” Foster said. “When you’re coaching at rival high schools like we were, it was important to try and beat each other’s teams as often as possible and when you’re facing a coach like Steve Johnson, you had to be at the top of your game. I think he really helped make me a better coach because of that.”