RIPON — Chris Johnson reluctantly took over as Ripon High head football coach in 2004.
He was just as reluctant to turn in his letter of resignation to Principal Lance Morrow late last week.
“When you officially close the door on something you spent almost 20 years of your life on, it’s hard, man,” said Johnson, who will remain as the school’s athletic director. He also teaches health and physical education.
“It’s just time,” he added. “I’m ready to see what’s next for Coach Johnson.”
Johnson, 45, said the demands of coaching football almost year-round along with fulfilling his duties as both school administrator and teacher weighed heavily into decision. He has two daughters, Hailey, 17, who graduates from Ripon High this spring, and Payton, 13, a freshman next year.
Johnson didn’t think his coaching career would last as long as it did. A 1988 Ripon graduate, Johnson played football collegiately at Modesto JC and Sonoma State, where he earned a degree in criminal justice. He returned to Ripon as a substitute teacher before his life took several unexpected turns, starting with a three-year stint as an assistant coach for his alma mater.
“Anybody who knows me from when I was young would say, ‘Are you freaking kidding me?’” Johnson joked. “I actually think that was part of the plan. I came back here to pay penance.
“I never planned on any of this, to teach and to coach, it just kind of fell on me. That was the way the stars aligned.”
The Indians football program returned to prominence under Johnson’s guidance. In his 12 years as varsity head coach, Ripon went 77-53, made five Sac-Joaquin Section postseason appearances and captured Trans-Valley League titles in 2012 and 2015. The 2012 team was the first in 29 years to finish 10-0 in the regular season, the first in 16 to earn a league championship and the first in 15 to win a playoff game.
Ripon has competed well over the years despite routinely losing athletes to parochial schools in the area. Johnson developed a system for his program to help overcome the relative lack of size, depth and athleticism.
“I just hope that I could be remembered a coach who got the most out of what he had,” Johnson said. “We’re going to always struggle talent-wise, we just don’t have those types of kids here. We try to put a competitive team on the field and do the best we can, and I think for the most part we’ve done that.”
For all that Ripon and Johnson accomplished on the football field, Johnson is most proud of the relationships forged with student-athletes. He recently attended a former player’s wedding and got to reunite with many others who were part of his 2004 team.
“I’ve got every team picture up on the wall in my classroom,” Johnson said. “I look at that and there are very few college players — no pro players. But I have two or three engineers, a couple highway patrol officers, a guy who did a couple of tours in Iraq, a ton of college kids — that’s what it’s really all about.”
Blake Morrow, a 2014 Ripon grad and son of the school’s principal, said he remembers the life lessons learned from playing football for Johnson. Morrow is studying biomedical engineering at Arizona State.
“The main thing he pushed was for us to not just be a good player on the field, but be a good person off the field,” Morrow said. “That’s what I’ll always remember are the speeches more about the off-the-field stuff than on-the-field.”
Johnson met with Lance Morrow last Thursday, Dec. 3 to officially step down from his post. A former football and soccer coach at East Union in the 1990s, Morrow was sympathetic to Johnson’s decision to resign.
“Obviously disappointed but I also understand,” Lance Morrow said. “You get to a point where you want to move on in your career and face different challenges.
“Chris achieved a lot with our football team. He’s really built the program up. Chris is definitely going to be missed.”
Morrow said Johnson’s resignation has been turned into the Ripon Unified School District and expects the search for a new head coach to begin “real soon.” Johnson will also be involved in the hiring process.
“We’re going to open it up for a couple of months,” Morrow said. “We know how important a head football coach is for a school, so we’ll take some time to find good, quality candidates.
“Yeah, we want somebody to teach football and be competitive, but we want someone like Chris who can get kids to look at the bigger picture and learn about life.”
Although coaching wasn’t in the original game plan for Johnson, he has no regrets for following through with it. He hasn’t ruled out a return to coaching ranks in the future, but for at least a year he’s going to enjoy the view from a different perspective on the sidelines.
“What a blessing in my life,” he said. “It has defined the last 20 years for me and my family and a lot of other people. You just hope you did some good when all is said and done.
“It was hard to turn that letter in, but I’m ready for it. We’ll see what happens now. I told our principal that for the first time in 20 years I have no idea what my life is going to be like a year from now. It’s kind of scary but it’s also kind of cool.”