“Now watch Craig Johnston throw on the dead run here. He’s sprinting out to his right, he keeps moving…he throws that ball with perfect timing.” Play-by-play, the announcer’s voice rings out over the sunny San Luis Obispo field.
It is the 1980 semifinal matchup between the Cal Poly Mustangs and the Santa Clara Broncos. The score is tied, and quarterback Craig Johnston, jersey number seven, has just called a timeout to confer with his coach and modify the game plan.
Under Johnston’s guidance and motivation, the Mustangs would go on to win that game and advance to the NCAA Division II National Football Championships, where they became the first and so far only California Polytechnic University football team to win.
On Oct. 2, in recognition of Johnston’s crucial role and leadership in the process, the university inducted him into its Athletics Hall of Fame, where he is one of only 35 football players to be inducted in the team’s 97-year history.
Johnston, who was head football coach at CHS for 18 years, received the news of his induction back in May.
“It’s a great feeling,” the current Weight Training and Physical Education teacher says. “My first reaction was I felt very thankful for all of my family, my teammates, my coaches, [all those] that took an interest in me and went out of their way to help me.”
After a successful high school career playing basketball, baseball and football—the latter as “one of the top quarterbacks that ever came out of the school,” in the words of his coach, Marijon Ancich—Johnston attended Cal Poly on a football scholarship.
Ancich, who, with 360 wins to his name, is the second-winningest high school football coach in California, speaks very highly of Johnston.
“He was a perfectionist…kind of a coach on the field,” Ancich continues, saying that, of all the athletes he worked with in over 45 years of coaching, Johnston ranks near the top.
In his first year at Cal Poly, the business major quickly made a name for himself as quarterback, earning then-unheard-of playing time for a freshman with his unsurpassed, fiery work ethic and innate leadership abilities on and off the field.
In the words of roommate, teammate and lifelong friend Tim Hanifin, “He had total command of the huddle. Not only in games, but in practice.”
The two roommates spent countless hours on a nearby beach throwing a football back and forth, and Hanifin, who would go on to be best man at Johnston’s wedding, describes the 5’10” quarterback’s overall athleticism as inspirational: “He had the strongest arm you could imagine…and his accuracy was unmatched.”
After suffering a traumatic knee injury his junior year, Johnston gruelingly dedicated himself to getting back into shape, and he returned more determined than ever to win championships in his last year as a Mustang.
On Dec. 13, 1980, at New Mexico’s Zia Bowl, that dream became a reality. In a 21-13 victory over Eastern Illinois, the soft-spoken man CHS students know as Coach J led his team to a National title. Now, as a result of his vision and passion, the team’s victory is being celebrated once again in his Hall of Fame induction.
Johnston speaks of the accomplishment as a collective one, a team achievement where bonds of a lifetime were cemented.
“We would be good, lifelong friends, no matter what,” Johnston says of his 1980 teammates. “But the fact that we won a national championship, it just makes it a little sweeter–to know that we had a chance, and we did it.”
Unlike most of his football compatriots in Cal Poly’s Hall of Fame, the highly regarded business school student did not go on to play professionally. After graduating, he spent some time in San Francisco’s financial district selling early desktop computers, where he found himself a fish out of water in a three-piece suit.
“I need to get outside on the grass,” the one-time salesman enthuses.
And get on the grass he soon did, his full-time coaching career beginning shortly thereafter at the request of some friends. It was here that he found his calling.
During his tenure as CHS head coach, Coach J would be named Mission Trail Athletic League Coach of the Year five times and Monterey County Coach of the Year once, and he only left the position when his youngest son began school at Cal Poly.
It so happened that at that time, all three of his sons were involved in football at his Alma Mater, one as a coach. It was a window of opportunity he didn’t want to miss.
For several years after he stepped down as head coach, Johnston still aided the Padres in developing game plans, which he is now doing for his oldest son coaching at San Luis Obispo High.
This is his first season not involved with CHS’ team at all, although players still regularly enter his small but welcoming office with questions, greetings or just friendly words.
“I went through my entire coaching career…under the assumption that I knew nothing,” the lifelong learner remarks. And while this clearly successful philosophy showcases the humble attitude people have come to expect and love about Coach J, it would be impossible to argue that the Craig Johnston of today knows nothing.
In fact, he has produced five Coaches Choice DVDs, which highlight drills, exercises and plays, and has written two books that are set for publication in January, one about an offensive technique called the no-spread huddle and the other about developing a successful high school football program.
In celebration of his and eight others’ inductions into the Hall of Fame, Cal Poly hosted a ceremony earlier this month where they walked each athlete out individually to a band fanfare, according to Ancich, who was in attendance. Hanifin, who was also present, noted how many guys Johnston’s induction had brought out, all “benefactors of his leadership.”
Indeed, with his recent induction to the university’s Hall of Fame, our very own Coach J has joined the ranks of greats such as John Madden. His humble and gracious attitude however, remains unchanged.
“You know how it is,” he responds when asked about what made winning championships special. “You develop friendships…. When you say that, I think it’s the friends, man, it’s the relationships. It’s the love.”