The story of how he came to be the head football coach at Division III Bethel University took Steve Johnson so long to tell he started it in one office and ended it in another. A worker needed to finish the montage of former players on Johnson’s office wall earlier this week, so Johnson took a visitor across the hall to wrap it up.
And because the story prominently features his late father, a Baptist preacher on the South Side of Chicago known to his congregation as Pastor Bill, Johnson twice became emotional and had to pause. Raised in a heavily Catholic neighborhood deep in White Sox territory, Johnson and his two brothers were outliers by religion and baseball loyalties: They rooted for the Cubs. And no one was a bigger fan than Pastor Bill, who died in 1997.
“I talk about him with our guys a lot,” Johnson said. “He was deaf in one ear. He couldn’t hear very well. He was set to be an engineer and then became a pastor. He was kind of ahead of his time.
“My dad was (passionate) about hamburgers, the Cubs, the Bears, and Jesus. When I was a kid, I was a little embarrassed, and now I’m ashamed to say it. What a gift. He appreciated with wonder a gift everyone took for granted. What a way to live. That was the kind of guy he was.”
Saturday at Simpson College in Iowa, Johnson will begin his 30th season at a job he turned down multiple times before reconsidering at his father’s urging. When he took over in 1989, Bethel football was so bad that when the Royals finished 3-6-1 his first season, his Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) peers voted him the Coach of the Year. A 1979 Bethel graduate, Johnson won that award five more times while compiling 207 victories, fourth best nationally among active Division III coaches.
Bethel’s run of 24 consecutive non-losing seasons is the longest active streak in the MIAC. Since 2006, Bethel — a Christian institution in Arden Hills — is the only school besides St. John’s and St. Thomas to win the conference championship. Gratefulness is a tenet of Johnson’s coaching and personal philosophy, handed down from his father and passed on to the hundreds of players he’s coached. Johnson, 62, still loves his job and is grateful for it every day.
“I didn’t even want to come here,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to stay. My first year, I’m Coach of the Year and we were 3-6-1, but we closed the gap. We lost a tough game, and my wife (Susan) said, ‘How long can we stay at a place where .500 is a ticker-tape parade?’ We didn’t know then.
“So I feel happy and almost a little guilty that my expectations weren’t (higher). What we’re doing today is really good.”
The long road to Bethel
Johnson’s come-to-Bethel story takes so long because he has to account for all the times he told school officials he wasn’t interested.
Assistant coaches in Division I bounce around, and Johnson found himself on a typical young coaches track in the 1980s. Two seasons as a graduate assistant at St. Cloud State while working on his masters degree led to four seasons as head coach at St. Cloud Cathedral High School, then one season at Minnesota as a grad assistant coaching running backs. From there he landed a full-time assistant’s job at Division I-AA Montana State for two seasons.
Johnson enjoyed the on-field instruction, but the time commitment and lifestyle wore him down. Married with a young son, he wasn’t home much, and that bothered him. “I was kind of on a good path, but I wasn’t getting filled up,” he said. “You can’t blame anybody. It just was not my gig.”
He moved back to Chicago, where friends from coaching set him up with a State Farm insurance agency. A normal life, making good money, sounded great. So when Bethel called to gauge his interest in coaching, he said no. Provost Dave Brandt flew to Chicago, took Johnson to dinner at one of Johnson’s favorite South Side restaurants, and they hit it off. But Johnson still said no. From playing at Bethel, he knew the formidable task facing any coach. Bethel joined the MIAC in 1978, his senior year, and never had won more than two conference games in any season.
Then his father got ahold of him. Remember, Pastor Bill’s hearing wasn’t the greatest, perhaps from flying noisy P-51 Mustangs in the Air Force in the 1950s. He thought Steve was focusing too much on material things and missing a great opportunity.
Eventually, Johnson packed up his family and headed northwest to Minnesota. His older brother David — they were football teammates at Bethel — was already here, then as now the pastor of the Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove. Youngest brother Mike eventually relocated here as well; he coaches defense at Edina High School. David’s boys Caleb and Kristopher played at Bethel for Steve.
“We were kind of a sports nut family,” David Johnson said. “I’ve lived here 38 years, and we’re still Bears fans and Cubs fans. It’s kind of obnoxious.
“I just think with the football thing, he’s done something at a Bible school or a Christian school, whatever you want to call it, that’s really hard to do — have a tough, aggressive, good football team. And they’re not thugs.”
‘It’s not all about football’
Johnson’s teams win with tough-minded players who embrace his tough-minded style. Raised on the 1960s Bears of Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers, the Royals traditionally feature a strong running game and rugged defense. The formula still works because Division III isn’t as pass-happy as Division I.
“I still think you need to run the football,” he said. “As big as Tom Brady is, [New England] has got to run the ball. We always want to have our fullback run like a tailback, catch like a receiver, and block. I believe you have to have surge. I don’t think you can play good defense if all your defense sees all year in practice is a passing game. If they don’t see a downhill run game, they’re susceptible to being pounded.”
And though Steve took a different career path than his father, he views coaching as a form of ministry, especially at a faith-based school like Bethel. After MIAC games, players, parents and alumni mingle postgame on the field; many know each other from high school. At that time, win or lose, the Bethel group gathers to hear Johnson reflect on a lesson of the day. Gratefulness and toughness are popular topics. To Johnson, toughness isn’t yelling, flexing and sticking out your chest. It’s running to the fight, like the Biblical story of David confronting Goliath, and doing your best in support of your teammates.
“The best thing about Coach J is, it’s not all about football,” said senior safety Dawson Brown. “That’s the most important thing he tries to emphasize. The first two weeks of camp, every day before our last meeting, he would do a half an hour to an hour talk, wrapping up the day. Usually has to do with a life lesson. Usually about gratefulness, leading into it. And he’s always emphasizes it’s more of a life thing than a football thing. Football is a great avenue to look at our life.”
Bethel had a run of 21 consecutive winning seasons until finishing 5-5 the last three. Banging heads with St. Thomas and St. John’s is a way of life in the MIAC, and Bethel hasn’t reached the NCAA playoffs since winning its last MIAC title in 2013. Still, Johnson relishes the rivalry. He believes he has another strong team this year. And this preacher’s son has never been one to run from a fight.
“We live to be a pain in their butt,” Johnson said.