Vern Friedli chuckles when he thinks back on Matt Johnson’s dueling passions. Johnson, the Oro Valley Ironwood Ridge football coach, got his start playing for Friedli’s Tucson Amphitheater Panthers.
He was the left tackle on Amphi’s 1990 team that reached the state title game before falling to Mesa 21-7. A year later, Amphi lost in the state semifinals. But football wasn’t Johnson’s only teenage passion. He also played the tuba in the school band.
“It was kind of hard for away games,” Friedli quipped. “We couldn’t really pack the tuba on the team bus.”
Playing for the state’s all-time winningest coach (331 victories) might have given Johnson the false impression that more success was just around the corner. But it’s taken the 1992 Amphi graduate more than two decades to return to prep football’s ultimate stage.
Following two straight seasons of semifinal losses, No. 3 seed Ironwood Ridge will face No. 4 seed Peoria Centennial in the Division II state championship game Saturday at 7:07 p.m. at Sun Devil Stadium.
“I’d like to think that getting to this game is a sort of redemption for the core values of coach Friedli and my father,” Johnson said. “If you work hard, believe in family and discipline and team, I’d like to think the fact that we’re in this game is validation for those values.”
Johnson’s dad, John Johnson, worked as a manager for Coca-Cola. Despite being stuck inside a cubicle for long hours, Matt Johnson said his dad never displayed a dissatisfaction with life.
“My father was probably the most optimistic, positive person I’ve ever met,” Johnson said. “He had a heart attack when I was a sophomore in high school, so every day he was alive was a blessing because we had been told he wouldn’t live as long as he did.”
John Johnson died while his son was a junior at Northern Arizona University. But his guidance and Friedli’s teachings gave Matt a singular focus when he left NAU.
“I wanted to be a high school football coach probably from the time I was a sophomore playing for coach Friedli,” Johnson said. “My dad was obviously a huge influence, but I cannot overstate coach Friedli’s impact on me in terms of who I am as a man and a coach.
“It’s in everything I do in terms of determination and discipline and always trying to play with class. He cared about the integrity of the game and he respected the game. But he also believed in competing.”
Johnson took those values and embarked on a coaching odyssey that is not uncommon in the prep ranks. He returned to Amphi and assisted Friedli from 1997 to 2000, then moved back to Flagstaff to get his master’s degree while coaching at Flagstaff Coconino in 2001.
After spending the 2002 season back at Amphi, Johnson took a year off when he and his wife, Yvonne, had their first daughter, Myra. He got back into coaching the following year at Tucson Rincon, which hadn’t posted a winning season since 1989.
Johnson went 22-21 in three seasons at Rincon seasons before taking another sabbatical to help Yvonne with their growing family, which now included daughter Olivia. In 2006, Johnson went back to Amphi, and in 2008, he spent a season coaching Catalina Foothills to a 6-5 season before leaving for his current post.
Why the switch after just one season? Johnson called it a philosophical divide. Like many schools facing budgetary constraints, Catalina Foothills has a pay-to-play program for athletes. But the school, which rests in an affluent district, chose to raise its rates to a level Johnson deemed unacceptable.
“I grew up in a mobile home in south Tucson, so this idea of sports costing $450 or $500 per kid — I just couldn’t stomach it,” Johnson said. “I understand the budget and all of those issues, but I started thinking about kids who might have a hard time paying that and I just didn’t think it was fair.”
As luck would have it, Ironwood Ridge was looking to replace successful coach, Gary Minor, and the school was in the same district as Amphi, where Johnson had attended school. Ironwood Ridge athletic director Will Kreamer interviewed applicants from all over the U.S — even Canada – but Johnson landed the job, and the Nighthawks have gone 37-13 since.
“Matt had a plan and a philosophy, and he wanted to find a school that was in line with those ideals,” Friedli said. “It doesn’t surprise me at all the kind of success he’s had. As far as growth goes, he achieved more in four years with me than most kids. He started off being this roly-poly young boy that people teased for being overweight, and look what’s he’s accomplished with discipline and fundamentals and hard work.”
Johnson deflects all the credit for the Nighthawks’ success to the school’s administration and, most of all, the kids.
“My life’s a dream come true. There are a lot of coaches who are working as hard as us that didn’t get to this game,” Johnson said. “We work hard, we believe in discipline and all of those values I learned from coach Friedli. But we’re also blessed with talent and good kids. We’ve got 11 seniors with a GPA over 3.6.
“Football’s a big deal at this school, but it’s not because of me. I’m just part of it. I’m not the cause of it.”