CENTRE – Bobby Joe Johnson, a state football coaching legend and community icon, passed away Monday morning at the age of 80.
The Hall of Fame Cherokee County High School football coach compiled an overall record of 247-109-3 over a 30-year career, which also included stints at Saks and Trion, Ga. His teams made the playoffs 15 times and captured 12 area championships. His 1984 and 1996 teams were Class 4A state runners-up.
Johnson was an eight-time Coach of the Year. Fifty three of his players signed college scholarships, with 18 of those to the Southeastern Conference, including former Alabama fullback Martin Houston.
“First of all, I want to send my condolences to the family,” Houston said. “He had such an impact on all of his players. I remember when we were younger, we used to play pee wee ball with the Cowboys and the Chargers, and there was this big, towering figure who would watch us. We couldn’t wait to play for him in high school.”
Houston went on to play fullback and linebacker for Johnson at the varsity level. He was an all-state selection from 1984-86 before signing a scholarship with the University of Alabama. Houston went on to win a national championship with the Crimson Tide in 1992.
Houston recalled Johnson and his wife Dolores helping him fill out college scholarship applications, saying the Johnson family “helped me pursue my dream” of playing college football.
“I guess the biggest thing is he just kept giving me opportunities to shine,” Houston said. “It wasn’t all a bed of roses. I remember the days of running and conditioning and that wasn’t my cup of tea. I struggled with it in high school and I struggled with it in college, but he just kept pushing me.”
Like Houston, Paul “Shorty” Trammell was another outstanding athlete Johnson coached throughout his football career. Trammell helped the Warriors earn a 9-1-1 record during the 1968 season. He signed with Samford University, where he led the Bulldogs to the Division II National Title in 1971.
Trammell said he was “heartbroken” when he heard the news of Johnson’s passing.
“He was just a great coach, but an even better person. He loved football and he loved his players,” Trammell said. “I know as a coach he was very smart at looking at the people he had on his team and trying to put them in the right positions for them to be successful. He got the best out of all of us. We all weren’t very good, but when you played for Coach Johnson, he got the best out of what we had. He was such a good coach who really cared about his players. I was happy to get to play for him.”
Trammell said he always looked forward to reunions talking with Coach Johnson about the memories of seasons gone by.
“Everybody would just gather around him. He’d have so many great stories. He was so funny, and he included everybody. He had something to say about everybody in our class.”
Tim Hill played halfback at Cherokee County High School from 1974-76 under Johnson.
As a senior 1976, he ran for 1,446 yards and 18 touchdowns in leading the Warriors to a 7-3 season. He played in the North-South All-Star Game, where he turned in a Most Valuable Performance after rushing for 97 yards on 24 carries in a 17-7 setback.
Hill earned a football scholarship to the University of Alabama and was the Crimson Tide’s leading offensive player on its undefeated JV squad as a freshman. He entered the Crimson Tide’s 1978 spring practice as the No. 1 running back alongside Major Ogilvie. However, a severe knee injury during a spring scrimmage ended his football career.
“After I got the cast off my leg, I came home and I was depressed,” Hill said. “I had come home and not had the cast off long, and I wanted to work my leg out, so I go back down to the workout room at the high school. Somehow Coach Johnson knew about it and he came down there. I’d not seen him in quite a while. When he saw me, he just came straight over, looked at my leg and busted out crying. It’s hard to tell that story. I knew he loved me. I knew that he cared. He loved all his players.”
Cherokee County High School 1988 graduate, former kicker/quarterback, and current Piedmont head coach Steve Smith echoed Hill’s comments about the love Johnson had for his players.
“He looked after us,” Smith said. “I happened to be fortunate enough to grow up in the same era that he had kids who were roughly the same age as me. I was a little younger than Brad, same age as Marc, a little bit older than Blake. I got to see Coach Johnson on a little bit more of a personal level just because I was friends with his kids. I got to see him a little bit out of football and seeing what a genuine person he was away from the field. He just captivated a group of people with the way he’d tell stories. I was just as eager to talk with Coach Johnson at age 45 and hear his stories as I was when I was 15.”
And it wasn’t just the stories Smith was captivated by. When he became a head coach at Cedar Bluff in 1995, Johnson offered the new coach valuable advice following a 2-8 season.
“He said just be yourself,” Smith recalled. “He said you’ve got a lot of people who are going to have opinions on what you should be doing, but just stick to what you believe in. If you stick to what you believe in, your kids will buy into it and you’ll be successful. That was a big piece of advice he gave me when I was at Cedar Bluff. We were 2-8 and I doubted my abilities of being a head football coach. He was real comforting to me about hanging in there and sticking to what we believed in and eventually the players would come around and buy into it. They did and we had a lot of great years at Cedar Bluff before coming to Piedmont.
“He made no bones about he didn’t really care a whole lot for Piedmont, but after I got the job over here, the support he gave me, the phone calls of encouragement and the notes he and Mrs. Johnson would send to me, just hugging my neck whenever he saw me and telling me he was proud of me meant the world to me. You get close to your coaches. They’re kind of like a second dad to you. Just like you always want to make your dad proud, you always want to make your coach proud. He would let me know he was proud of me, a congratulatory call if we’d win a state championship or something like that. It kind of gave you a little sense of pride you were able to please somebody who meant a lot to you. I’m certainly going to miss him, that’s for sure.”
Smith wasn’t the only head coach to learn a thing or two from Johnson. Former Sand Rock coach Russell Jacoway said Johnson shared with him ways for his teams be successful. Jacoway won a state championship in 1985 and was state runner-up in 1997.
“We’d sit and draw pass routes and he would show me things he would do in the running game that I used a lot of,” Jacoway said. “A lot of the power run game we did I got from Coach Johnson. I loved just sitting around with the man and talking football.”
Jacoway said Johnson would also talk to his seniors as a guest speaker.
“He was the greatest story teller you’d ever talk to,” Jacoway said. “My kids would sit there just speechless listening to the man tell stories for hours. We did that several years on my front porch. Coach Johnson would come over and eat with us, and we’d just turn the program over to him and he would talk to my seniors and tell stories. I owe a lot of gratitude to him. I really do. I thought the world of him.”
The two head coaches even shared a radio show on WEIS on Saturday mornings where they just talked high school football back in the day.
“We had the best time,” Jacoway said. “Oddly enough, it was the year we won the state championship, Coach Johnson predicted it. We were playing West End, and he said ‘If you beat West End this week in Game 10, you’ll win the state championship.’ He was right. We won that ball game and went on to win the state championship.”
And the camaraderie with the local coaches continued up until recently. Current Warrior coach Jacob Kelley said Johnson was a big supporter of his throughout the past two seasons.
“He was on the hiring committee that hired me,” Kelley said. “One of the stories I have with him are me, him and Freddie (Reynolds) went out for the booster club fundraising my first summer here. I remember going to eat with them at Jack’s. We started at Jack’s with all the crew and Coach Johnson was there. We started there and went all around. He’s introducing me to all the people in the community, just making sure the program was still taken care of, telling stories of how they built the old field house, having to take a loan out just to build that personally, basically building the field as well. Him being on the committee to hire me and knowing he had two grandchildren on that team said a lot for me and him trusting me to be responsible for them said a lot.
“Nobody is more responsible for the program of where it is now than him. He’s touched so many lives in this community. This program is in his debt. It really is.”
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