Boys track coach of the year: West Side’s Gene Johnson
By Mike Clark Post-Tribune correspondent June 29, 2013 9:30PM
Updated: August 2, 2013 7:20AM
There was a time when winning boys track trophies was an expectation for Gary teams.
Roosevelt has won 35 sectionals, 29 regionals and 20 state titles — 12 under legendary coach John Campbell, five more under Don Leek and three for Bo Mallard. West Side has 10 sectional championships, nine regionals and five state titles. Horace Mann won five straight sectionals beginning in 1989.
But after West Side’s run of sectional titles ended at four in 1997, the balance of power shifted to the suburbs. Much has changed in Gary since then: Mann and Wirt have closed, while Roosevelt has been reorganized.
But this spring, West Side stirred the echoes. The Cougars used balance across the board to outdistance Munster 135-101 for the Highland Sectional title — the first for a Gary school since ’97 (West Side did win regionals in 2005 and ’07). For helping West Side return to prominence on the local track scene, Gene Johnson is the Post-Tribune Boys Track Coach of the Year.
If the Cougars’ postseason success came as a surprise to some, it didn’t catch Johnson unawares.
“When you start off a track season, you always have certain goals you set,” he said. “Sectional was not too high a goal.”
Especially after junior Jonvae Johnson arrived as a transfer from Lake Central.
Johnson won the 100- and 200-meter dashes at the sectional, took first in the latter and second in the former at the regional, and was third in the 100 and fourth in the 200 at state. He also played key roles on the Cougars’ sprint relays, which were sectional champs and state qualifiers.
“When you talk about people that are gifted with a certain talent, he has the talent of speed,” Gene Johnson said. “Speed is something that comes naturally. You can enhance and improve it (but) in many instances it is a God-given gift.”
It wasn’t immediately apparent that Jonvae Johnson could be such a difference-maker for the Cougars. But discovering that was part of the process, according to his coach.
“It’s like the reason you go to school,” Gene Johnson said. “Some student or child may unveil they have a particular gift or they have a knowledge of doing certain things. I didn’t know that right away. (But) my (assistant) coaches are good at detecting certain things.”
Still, one very good sprinter wasn’t going to be enough to win a sectional. Fortunately for the Cougars, they had a few other game-changers.
Among them: junior Lonnie Johnson, who won the long jump and was sixth in the 100; sophomore 800 champ Deronte Briggs; and junior Kahlil Upshaw, who was second in the 110 hurdles, fourth in the high jump, fifth in the 300 hurdles and ninth in the long jump.
In all, the Cougars finished first or second in nine of the 16 events at the sectional.
Timing played a role in the title in more ways than one, according to Gene Johnson.
“That was a day that we were blessed that we were able to receive good weather ... we were able to minimize our injuries,” he said.
Days like that are what keep Johnson coming back. He has been at West Side since the school opened in 1968 and was the school’s football coach for 41 seasons through 2008. He’s also coached wrestling and track, working with head coach Willie Williams when the Cougars won state titles the latter sport in 1974, ’75, ’78, ’79 and ’80.
“It’s brand new every day,” Johnson said. “It’s a new situation, a new kid, trying to perfect ... the ability they have.”
How much longer will he coach?
“You never know,” Johnson said. “It has something to do with the way you feel. If you still have a love for it, you go for it.”
After this spring’s success, there’s not much doubt that West Side’s veteran coach will keep going for it.