How Bethel football’s Steve Johnson became national Coach of the year

Chub Reynolds was in his coach’s office at the University of Northwestern in mid-August 1990. He was discussing the football programs at Northwestern and its Roseville neighbor Bethel, and also his impending death because of a terminal cancer diagnosis that already was past due by almost a year.

Reynolds had been hired as Bethel’s football coach in 1970, when it was an independent and regularly losing against a mishmash of teams.

Then came what Reynolds referred to as the “glory years,” two seven-win seasons and an overall record of 19-7 from 1975 through 1977.

Among the outstanding players was Steve Johnson, a tackle who found his way from Chicago to the then-small Baptist school.

Those wins gave visions of Grandeur to the Bethel administration, which applied for and received admission to the MIAC for the 1978-79 school year.

The Royals went 4-16 overall and 2-13 in their first two seasons in the MIAC and Reynolds was fired. He became an Assistant Coach at Northwestern, then the head coach.

“For nine years, I would open the paper on Sunday morning in the fall, look at the Bethel score, see it lost again and laugh,” Reynolds said. “That changed last season when they hired Steve Johnson. As far as I’m concerned, he is one of my boys.”

And three-plus decades later, after the program building, and all the wins, and a national Coach of the Year honor, Steve Johnson will sit in his office for a long conversation and make sure to mention the influence that Chub had on his career .

“They reinforced to me that football is a hard game, and how to treat people who play for you,” Johnson said.

Chub died on Oct. 8, 1990, exactly one month after Bethel and Northwestern had played football for the first time. Bethel won 49-21.

That was career college win No. 4 for Johnson. He now has 244 wins, the most among active coaches in Division III football. And with 34 years (and 33 seasons), he’s the longest-serving D-III head coach.

“What’s amazing is to be told you have the most wins among active coaches in D-III, and then realize that you are 240-some [242] behind John Gagliardi, a Legend you coached against for 24 seasons,” Johnson said.

How were you and The Man from St. John’s when all was said and done?

Johnson smiled and said: “It wasn’t great at the start. They put 77 on us once.”

Laughing now, Johnson said: “I remember him coming across the field for the handshake, saying, ‘Man, you guys are getting tough, Steve, and I said, ‘John, you just beat us 52-8.'”

Yet, Gags was right. Bethel was getting tough. And on Jan. 9, the American Football Coaches Association announced it had named Johnson as the D-III Coach of the Year.

As we talked, Johnson broke up for a moment talking about the honor, not because of the plaque, but in memory of “Pastor Bill,” his father.

“I think about how my father would have reacted,” Johnson said. “He was deaf in one ear, very hard of hearing, and the all-time loud talker. His voice would boom at inappropriate times in conversation and you could feel embarrassed.

“I never should’ve felt that way. He was a great man, a great preacher, and always showed such pride and confidence in his kids.”

Steve was head Coach for four seasons at St. Cloud Cathedral — with his current St. John’s Rival Gary Fasching as an Assistant — from 1982 to 1985. He was a grad Assistant for the Gophers and John Gutekunst in 1986.

He then went to Montana State as an Assistant for two seasons.

“Earle Solomonson had won two national titles at North Dakota State, and then brought his staff to Bozeman,” Johnson said. “They weren’t really interested in what I had to offer.”

Johnson and his wife, Susan, pregnant with twins, returned to their mutual hometown of Chicago after the 1988 season. Steve passed a test to become a State Farm agent.

“The president and others at Bethel kept calling me, offering the job, and I kept saying, ‘No,’ because I had the insurance deal,” Johnson said. “But I still had strong feelings about Bethel as a place where I grew a lot, and finally took the job.”

Susan said: “The next day, I delivered our twin girls, Katie and Maddie. And our son, Cornell, was still in diapers. Three in diapers and Steve’s heading for a job back at Bethel.”

So it would’ve been easier if he had become an insurance agent?

“Not at all,” Susan said. “He would’ve been bored out of his mind. And the rest of us, too. The truth is, Steve is the least-competitive person in our family. Any family discussion … he always gives in.”

It is different in football.

Johnson: “My goal from the start at Bethel, and what I repeat to every team is, ‘We want to be hard — hard — to play.'”

The regular-season finale in 2006 and Bethel’s first win (28-13) at St. John’s would be Example A:

The Royals mauled the previously 9-0 Johnnies for 299 yards rushing, 96 plays to 44, and 41:40 of possession time.

The late Coach Gagliardi, the all-time sufferer when faced with rare defeat, said:

“Every week, there’s a stunner. This week … we’re the stun-ees.”

Which basically describes what Johnson has done for Bethel football over these decades: Stunning.

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