Grayslake North's Johnson went full-circle with area coaching legend
New Grayslake North football coach Brian Johnson got to participate in one of the great turnarounds the suburbs has ever seen.
He was a senior at McHenry during coach Mike Noll's first season on the job in 1988. The Warriors went from 2-7 the previous year to making the playoffs for the first time in school history, and started a 20-year playoff streak.
Johnson came full circle in 2019 when he was special teams coordinator at Richmond-Burton and helped Noll win the first state title of his career.
"When you start in high school, that's sort of the guy you look up to, then you coach with him and that was like the pinnacle of his career, which is pretty special," Johnson said.
Now that he's a head coach for the first time in a long career, Johnson might think back to how Noll turned things around so quickly at McHenry.
"I think it was partly his demeanor," Johnson said. "He wanted us to be accountable. Culture-wise, it was different, working hard in the off-season. Back then, we would have camp for two weeks and light lift. That was something we'd do a lot more.
"Mostly I think him as a person and the things he tried to instill in us was probably the biggest factor."
Johnson has been a teacher at Grayslake Central since 2000, but he also has a history at North. He was the offensive coordinator from 2009-17 under coaches Steve Wood and Sam Baker. The Knights made the playoffs six years in a row from 2012-17, but have been to the postseason just once since then.
"Since the last time I was there, there have been a couple head coaches who put their style in," Johnson said. "So it's a little different putting my style into the program. It's not like it's a continuation of what it was before. I think having the (past) tie-in is definitely helping."
Johnson, a fullback and linebacker during his high school years, said the Knights have played with five wideouts the last couple of years and he'd like to return to running the ball.
He's got plenty of influences to draw upon. Since first joining the coaching staff at Grayslake Central, he's basically done a lap around the northern suburbs. He spent three years at Libertyville before going to North. When a change to the work schedule prevented a return to Richmond-Burton, he spent last season coaching wide receivers at Warren.
"I've been lucky to be around a ton of Hall of Fame coaches," Johnson said. "When I student-taught in the mid-90s, the school co-opted with Leroy and the coach there, Jim Zeleznik, ended up a Hall of Fame football coach. Then I was at Marengo for five years and Kelly Camp ended up being in the Hall of Fame.
"Going to Libertyville with Karl Jennrich, he was a mentor of mine, and Kuz (Randy Kuceyeski), he's in the Hall of Fame. I've been around a lot of programs that I learned a lot from."