One of the great traditions of Bethel University football happens postgame, when players and parents gather on the field at Royal Stadium to hear Coach Steve Johnson speak about the life lesson of the day. The topics generally involve leadership, faith and trust in each other, with the tone landing somewhere between a sermon and a motivational speech — appropriate for the son of a Baptist preacher from Chicago.
But last Saturday, late on a cold, gray fall afternoon, Johnson skipped his usual remarks. He spoke only to his players after the Royals clinched their first Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) title in 10 years, and it didn’t take long. “I love you guys,” he said, smiling. “We get to be together like this for another week.”
Three weeks ago, Johnson announced he was retiring after 35 seasons coaching the Royals. It’s been quite a run for Johnson, 67, a six-time MIAC Coach of the Year and Division III’s active leader with 252 coaching victories. Before he arrived in 1989, the Royals won 14 games, total, the previous nine seasons. He leaves after leading Bethel (8-2) to its 29th consecutive non-losing season, the longest active streak in the MIAC, and 12th NCAA playoff berth. Next up: A first-round matchup Saturday at national power Wisconsin-Whitewater.
This might be one of Johnson’s best coaching jobs. Bethel started the season 1-2, including a 27-7 drubbing at nationally ranked St. John’s. But a 37-28 home victory over Gustavus Adolphus started a seven-game winning streak in MIAC play, a run that saw Bethel’s stout defense — a Royals trademark under Johnson — limit its last six opponents to 14 points or fewer.
That defense carried the day in Saturday’s MIAC Championship game. It held the potent Gusties — coached by Peter Haugen, a Bethel grad and one of Johnson’s former players — to one touchdown while intercepting MIAC passing leader George Sandven four times in a 31-7 rout. Junior Aaron Ellingson ran 76 yards for a touchdown on a fake punt less three minutes into the game, and went on to rush for a career-high 224 yards and three touchdowns
Ellingsons aid he and his teammates were bummed to hear Johnson was leaving, and wanted to send him off with one last MIAC title.
“It was hard, especially for us old guys that have been here for multiple years and soaked in the atmosphere and culture that he’s created,” Ellingson said. “It was hard even for the freshman who have gotten to see the beginning of that for their careers. We were able to use that as even more motivation for the season, knowing we don’t have many more weeks with him. It’s up to us to extend the season as long as possible and spend as much time together.”
The largest crowd of Bethel’s season — 5,252 — turned out for what many expected to be Johnson’s final home game, win or lose. Several hundred students ran onto the field after the final gun, followed by several hundred adults, almost all of whom Johnson recognized and greeted after he finished with his jubilant players. Bundled in a dark blue Bethel jacket with a white hoodie underneath, Johnson — tall with salt-and-pepper hair and a white goatee — couldn’t stop smiling.
“I just love this group,” he said. “Find a way and get to what’s next.
“We feel blessed to win this game. I’m really proud of the demeanor and the toughness and the joy that they play with. They compete with joy. That’s what we’re kind of after.“
College and high school coaches talk a lot about family and togetherness and brotherhood. Sometime, it’s just smoke. A team is a “family” until the coach decides to run off players who get hurt or underperform, or the coach himself leaves for a better-paying job. Happens all the time in Division I.
There’s less hypocrisy in Division III, which prohibits athletic scholarships and lacks the obscene TV revenue that makes D1 so odorous. Good coaches like Johnson stay for decades in one place, making friends, putting down roots.
“He was a great coach to play for when I played for him, and he has been a great encouragement to me as a coach, both in my time at [Minneapolis] Washburn [High] and Gustavus,” Haugen said in an email. “He has impacted so many players and coaches in a positive way, and has left a legacy for Bethel football and our league that will be felt for years to come.”
Johnson always saw himself as a molder of men first, figuring if he built character in his players, victories on the football field would follow.
For years he taught a class based on the 2001 HBO mini-series “Band of Brothers,” the World War II saga that followed Easy Company through basic training, D-Day and the liberation of Europe from the Nazis. The traits that made those soldiers so admirable — the selflessness, the accountability — transferred easily to football, and to life. “Run to the fight” and “stay in the fight” became common sayings around the Bethel program, especially all those Saturdays when St. John’s and St. Thomas made the Royals work for everything.
Bethel Director of Athletics Greg Peterson has been around for Johnson’s entire tenure. A Bethel grad, he played on Johnson’s first three teams before joining his coaching staff as an assistant, eventually spending 17 seasons as his offensive coordinator. Two years ago, he became Johnson’s boss. Here’s how he explains Johnson’s approach:
“It’s OK to be uncomfortable and engage in stuff that’s hard,” he said. “If you’re going to have a meaningful relationship with your wife or kids and teammates, there’s going to be hard stuff, and you’re going to have to be willing to lean into the hard stuff and kind of hang on for dear life with each other.
“That’s something that’s been a foundational piece of the football program since he’s been leading it. We’re in this thing together. It’s not just football. How do we live together? How do we build relationships with one another? Are you willing to hold each other accountable for the choices you make with your friends, your girlfriend, with everything?”
Peterson said Johnson first approached him about retiring last winter. They talked back and forth about it for months, including the timing. Johnson told his players Oct. 30, shortly before the university released the news.
“I never felt like he was going to be someone who coached until he was 80 or 85,” Peterson said. “I felt pretty strongly that when he was going to be done, he was going to be done. I think it’s pretty cool that his identity isn’t wrapped up only in coaching. He’s a husband and a father and has five grandkids he loves hanging out with.”
Johnson’s tenure at Bethel parallels the institution’s growth from a small Bible college and seminary in Arden Hills to a university of 4,700 students, with more engaged alumni and a larger state-wide presence. Peterson believes football’s success drove some of that. Last year Bethel raised $4 million to renovate Royal Stadium, replacing a grass field with artificial turf and adding a nine-lane track. That would have been impossible in 1989, when Johnson’s preacher father talked him into taking the Bethel job.
What’s next for Johnson? Peterson sees him spending time with his grandchildren and mentoring young coaches, at Bethel and elsewhere. But not yet. Johnson has at least one more game to coach. And for that, he’s especially grateful.
“We started out a little rugged early [this season], but that’s the testament to staying in the fight,” Johnson said. “This is unbelievably special. It’s great to get a conference championship. The most special thing is, we get to be together again as long as we keep winning. That’s what we love.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Aaron Ellingson’s name.