New Madera South coach builds on foundation
Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune New Madera South football coach Matt Johnson stands inside the new Madera South weight room before summer workouts last week.
As the head coach of the Edison-Fresno Tigers football team, Matt Johnson had a first-hand look at the foundation being built at Madera South.
Although Johnson’s Tigers won the past two meetings, it wasn’t without some trepidation.
“There were moments that, as a head coach at Edison, this was a night I am going to lose my job because they were handling us,” Johnson said. “In the junior year of Jonah Johnson, we couldn’t stop him. The fact that we had more guys was the reason we were able to get the win.”
Madera South trailed by six at the half, but was outscored 21-7 in the second half last year. In 2015, Madera South led 32-30 in the fourth quarter, but Edison scored a late touchdown for the win.
Johnson became the third head coach in Madera South history in May, following Dane Cook, who resigned in March.
“The level of enthusiasm these men show and the respect they have, coach Cook did a very good job,” Johnson said. “Without question, I want this to be my last job, If you’re going to ask if this is my last job, can anyone truthfully answer that? Maybe you don’t like me. What if things happen you’re not pleased with. That is the plan for this to be my last job. This is it. I have to establish hard roots, the foundation and then, hopefully, go into the sunset and retire as a Madera South kid.”
Johnson has been a fixture in the Central Valley community working with NFL legend Tim McDonald in business and at Edison. After successful years at Edison, McDonald moved on, but Johnson stayed behind.
“We stayed there for seven years,” Johnson said. “Then, Tim had had enough. It’s difficult at times over there. Tim had enough with people that he grew up with. There was a lot of stuff that he had to deal with. We had a great time and really enjoyed it. It got to be too much. Money came out of our account and the restaurant to fund that operation. He started feeling like he needed a job. The next coach came in and there was a problem and they had to get rid of him right away. Tim came back for one more year. He went to Fresno State and then to the NFL”
However, Johnson led Edison to more successful seasons and looked to be comfortable at Edison, but frustration began to set in and the boiling point came at the same time Madera Unified School District director of athletics Marty Bitter gave him a call to check his interest.
“I started feeling like I wasn’t so happy,” Johnson said. “I happened to go home and lean on my wife. Literally, a hour when I’m crying over my dinner, frustrated, Marty Bitter called me from Madera Unified. He said he had a question and heard some things. Marty called me and asked if I would be interested in interviewing for the Madera South job. I would like to hear a little about it. I’ll open it up and let Fresno Unified deal with it. I had people ask me if I was leaving. I decided it was time for a change.”
Even with the success, Edison is the only school in Fresno Unified without an athletics physical education class. Also, Edison couldn’t find an office for Johnson.
“It starts to wear on you,” he said. “College recruiters come to see our guys. I am selling those guys. Coaches are calling me from Cal and Utah. They say we have to do something about this and get you an office. It’s a running joke among college coaches when you go to Edison, make sure you have your walking shoes because coach doesn’t have an office so he’s going to walk you around campus. We laugh about it, but I had to take a reflection about it that they were talking about me the lack of this.
“I started to ask for things that you think you need for your program. When those things don’t happen, amongst other things, it’s human nature to think what truly is the commitment here.”
After committing to Madera South, Johnson found out that the Stallions weren’t as bad as people were telling him.
“People that I ran with said that this school is losers,” he said. “They said you’re playing in Div. IV and they are still not winning. You’re leaving this for that. The perception that I was getting a less than football player is complete and utter hogwash. This school was going toe-to-toe with Edison. I had no idea or perception about Madera South. This place was off the path for me. I didn’t even know where the school was. After talking to Marty bitter, I got excited about someone might want it. I couldn’t see and GPS’d it and it was 13 miles from my house. I was familiar with Madera, but didn’t know Madera South. I didn’t have any preconceived notion. My friends all said they couldn’t play football and that couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
Two reasons why Johnson left Edison to Madera South were athletics PE and facilities.
“I’m watching this district and this school handles the morning and what you can get accomplished with your student atheltes in the morning time between first and third period. I thought if Edison had that mechanism for success. Now, knowing that we’re in it with Dane Cook and Anthony Gallegos running it, I would have never left Edison because I would have had everything I needed. The one thing you can’t get in the high school world is time with the kids. Time with the kids over each day, as you add 55 minutes extra, what could I have created at Edison, rather than roll out the ball at 3 p.m. and then learn how to play football. How can you possibly achieve the real goal and dreams for my program? When I saw that here, I was amazed. The school district of Madera lay out what they are trying to educate for college-minded individuals when they graduate.
“Anybody who complains about facilities in this school district, ought to go to other coaches that don’t have this luxury. Edison has been operating in the same locker room area. Then, we would go onto the field with rocks. We helped put the new grass in there with sprinklers. Give the team something good and now go out to compete to do something good. When you don’t have that, when you feel like you’re behind all the time, this school district proved to me within days how good they have it. It really solidified my position that this is a place I can grow old and finish with.”
Johnson went to four different high schools growing up before ending up at Castle Park High School in Chula Vista. From there, he was recruited to play defensive back at USC, among other schools.
“Football got me my full-ride scholarship, but I was more interested that I was able to keep my track and field stuff going,” he said. “I ran the 400 and 800 meters. I wanted to pursue that. I got there and John Robinson, who recruited me to play football, after my freshman year involved with track and field, said do what you do, I support you. If you want to make an impact on this football team, your bread gets buttered at spring football. If you’re in track and field, it’s hard for us to make a strong evaluation. That’s all I needed to hear.”
Because of his experience to give up track and field, Johnson is passionate that athletes play multiple sports.
“I’m tired of hearing this thing of playing one sport all year,” he said. “I’ve carried that everywhere I’ve gone. Without question, the value of multiple sports indicates you get a healthier student-athletes, not only with sports, but afterschool activities.”
“Athletes can get a whole new fresh set of ideas, training methods, leadership abilities and different angles of life. You become a more well-rounded, better student-athlete when you go off to college. It’s been proven. This idea that we become specialists and go year-round is harming our student-athletes.”
Johnson started four years at USC at safety and cornerback.
“I was the original white boy cornerback,” he said.
Johnson was drafted in the fifth round by the San Diego Chargers and was dealt to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He then moved to the Seattle Seahawks and finished with the Los Angeles Raiders when he felt his career was over.
“At the start of the next training camp, it didn’t go so well and I knew my days as a competitive NFL player were over,” he said.
Johnson went back to USC to finish out one more semester and graduated in 1988 with a degree in public affairs.
“My parents instilled good values in terms of education,” he said. “When I left as a fifth round draft pick, I didn’t want to dedicate any of my time other than to my profession, which was pro football. I dropped out of school my last semester. I went back, but I paid for it. Once you sign that professional contract, you’re a professional and an no longer get financial assistance from USC. Even back then, that was a $45,000 hit. That was my signing bonus from Tampa Bay. I did it because I knew my parents pushed academics. It paid off. That’s how I got started with business.”
When his football career was over, Johnson got a job with a USC alumna and started coaching. He moved to the Central Valley to build his own food brokerage business.
“I bumped into my best friend and USC teammate Tim McDonald,” Johnson said. “He was an All-american and rekindled our friendship from college. He had a vision of opening a restaurant and he wanted me to be a partner. I thought that was flattered to working together, but I had my eye on this sports marketing position at Anheiser-Busch that was already offered to me.”
However, on the day he was scheduled to head to St. Louis, Johnson received a phone call that told him that his job opening was cancelled.
“One of their VPs called me and said Auggie Busch III, owner of the company, cancelled all growth because he was getting kicked by the craft beers,” Johnson said. “Their overseas sales were declining and he blew a gasket. He put a freeze on all hiring.”
Johnson quickly made the transition to McDonald and they opened World sports Café and also helped build a sports facility in Fresno, which they got out of quickly.
It was at World Sports Café that Johnson and McDonald tried to came up with a plan to coach football.
“When we sat in the office, we would talk about running and coaching a team,” Johnson said. “Tim’s kids were at an age where they were too heavy to play in Clovis Unified. They don’t even let you play cleats on. It’s like a tennis shoe kind of league. We looked around and found Don Arax at Bullard Youth Football let anyone play.”
The duo went undefeated in two years and started looking for high school jobs. The pair was in line at San Joaquin Memorial-Fresno, but the coach decided not to retire. At that time, the Edison job came open and the two jumped at the chance.
“We inherited a great team,” Johnson said. “In the meantime, I had to think our lease was done with World Sports Café. Tim was done with the business. Tim didn’t want to do it and I didn’t want to hold the bag. I wanted to get back to what I wanted to do and that was coaching and working with kids. Sure enough, I went to work for Fresno Unified. I took a while. I was a long-term subbing. I was using all of my powers to get the young guys to present themselves as high character guys to change the way of life over there. We met with immediate success. That’s what ultimately spring-loaded the school district to retain this guy. The district wanted to get me working with us and working with these kids. It was a mentoring thing for the kids.”
Johnson is on staff at Madera Unfiied and is a community liaison on student mentoring.
“You’ll see me at junior highs and elementary schools working on student standards for growth and behavior,” he said. “It’s about developing the young men and women in this school district. I have developed a program, centered around John Baxter’s Academic Game Plan, and taken it to a life skill. I’m kind of a life coach for the kids. Fresno Unified created it and Madera Unified has the same idea.”
Two things that Johnson’s team will be involved in is beautification on campus and supporting other teams on campus.
“I believe heavily on the beautification aspect of the campus,” Johnson said. “We want to change the perception of these Neanderthal football guys. We’re going to be picking up and cleaning up this campus. How hard is it to eat your lunch and put it into the trash? We talked about our first mission is the beautification of our community and our school. That’s the first step. We want to change the perception of what a football player is. We’re not gladiators. We’re like anybody else. I got it all the time at Edison. I’ve got to make sure our players understand that in life, your perception of who you are, you have to enhance that all the time. What are the tools to do that? That’s what we’re digging into all the time. We want our kids to conduct themselves as a Champion for Life.
“I’m just trying to give the kids the full look about what life in high school is about. We will be involved in supporting the other student-athlete. As an ex-football guy, I hated the feeling that people looked at me differently. You will see us at basketball games. I was the unofficial leader at Edison. The young men I represent will understand that Coach Johnson really cares about letting them know you care about what they are doing. We care a heck of a lot about what these kids do for us on Friday nights. As long as I am here, we’re not going to allow one of our sports team play in a meaningful game and have to be in front of not a lot of people.”
Johnson is a big USC Trojan fan and also supports the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers, as well as the Los Angeles Lakers. He also enjoys the outdoors.
“I make a trip to Big Sky every year,” he said. “I like going to travel to the Northwest. I like the woodsy, snowy kind of look. I’m an outdoor guy. I like to ride the dirt bikes and quads.”
Johnson has a wife, Valerie, and they have three children. His oldest graduated from UC Santa Barbara. His middle child, Hunter, is a junior and will be a videographer for the team. His youngest, McKenna, will be a sophomore.
“They are excited,” Johnson said of his team. “There’s that first level that you have to get through, which is trust. We’re in this trust building. I think see that I care deeply about their lives and how they progress. I think they can feel that in me. I think it’s going very well. We’re winning them over.”