Longtime coach dies of heart attack at 77
Dick Johnson’s funeral will be Oct. 21, a Friday when no high school football games are scheduled in Minnesota.
The last thing he would have wanted, according to those who knew him, would be to disrupt the routine of any team playing the sport he loved.
Johnson, who coached high school football in Lakeville for decades and has his imprint on some of the best quarterbacks who ever played there, died Saturday morning of an apparent heart attack, just hours after attending the Lakeville North-Lakeville South varsity game Friday night. He was 77.
His son Jay, the University of Minnesota’s first-year offensive coordinator, was not told of Johnson’s death until after the Gophers’ game at Penn State on Saturday afternoon. “There’s no doubt in my mind that’s what Dick wanted,” said Lakeville South head coach Larry Thompson, who joined Dick Johnson’s coaching staff at Lakeville High School in 1975 and succeeded him as head coach in 1979. “He would have wanted Jay’s focus to be on his team and that game.
“The funeral’s going to be Oct. 21 because that’s MEA weekend, and the high school teams play Wednesday that week. For Jay, the game plan’s already going to be in by Friday (Minnesota plays its homecoming game against Rutgers on Oct. 22). Dick wouldn’t have wanted his funeral to get in the way of anybody’s preparation.”
Johnson, a Robbinsdale native, taught physical education in Lakeville schools. The fitness center at McGuire Middle School is named for him.
Thompson joined the Lakeville coaching staff in 1975. A year later Johnson made Thompson the Panthers’ defensive coordinator. By 1979 Thompson had been promoted to head coach, and one of his first decisions was to ask Johnson to stay on as an assistant. Johnson spent most of his time coaching quarterbacks and running backs, first at Lakeville and then at Lakeville South, before retiring from coaching in 2012.
A number of the current football coaches at Lakeville North and Lakeville South high schools played for Johnson, known by his nickname “Magic.” He coached Josh Lucas, the quarterback of the last Lakeville team to win a state championship in 2003, as well as other standouts such as John Bowenkamp, John Guentzel, Marcus Brumm, current Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner – and Jay Johnson, quarterback at Lakeville High in the mid-1980s.
“He was a technician, and he was great at coaching fundamentals,” Thompson said. “He worked with Mitch Leidner, and I know one of the reasons the Gophers recruited Mitch was he was so fundamentally sound. And now that Jay’s with the Gophers, he’s doing some of the drills there that Dick did here.”
Johnson had an eye for detail, something Thompson knew he needed on his staff. “He was a fundamentals coach, and I’m more X’s and O’s and public relations,” Thompson said. “If a player had a problem with footwork or hand position, Dick could spot it.
“I remember one day we were practicing in the morning and the grass was still wet. Dick was laying on the ground in the wet grass and I had no idea why. It turned out one of our quarterbacks was having problems fumbling the snap and Dick thought that was the best way to see what the problem was.”
After retiring from coaching, Johnson and fellow Lakeville South assistant Jim Knutson ran the Cougars’ equipment room – and had a no-nonsense approach to that task, too. “If the deadline for turning in equipment was on a Tuesday, they usually had everything put away by Monday,” Thompson said.
Johnson, Knutson, Dick Zeman, Dave Comer and Thompson coached together for decades at Lakeville High, then Lakeville South. “We understood each other,” said Thompson. “Sometimes we knew what each other was going to say before he said it.”
In 1991, Johnson received the Butch Nash Award, given annually to top assistant coaches in Minnesota high school football. Several other coaches with Lakeville ties also have received that award, but Thompson said it seemed especially appropriate for Johnson. Thompson said he thinks Johnson preferred being an assistant coach to being head coach, where the demands of that job caused some sleepless nights.
“His specialty was working with quarterbacks and running backs,” Thompson said. “You could see how much he enjoyed doing that. I think it was his niche.”