Longtime St. Charles coaches share favorite Ron Johnson memories
Friday's Class 4A Elgin regional championship game pits St. Charles East against St. Charles North for a third time this season at Chesbrough Fieldhouse.
I know Ron Johnson would be proud.
Johnson, who spent 35 of his 41-year coaching and teaching career at St. Charles High School, passed away on Feb. 23 at the age of 87.
Affectionately known to many as "R.J.," Johnson amassed a record of 710-406, ranking 18th on the state's all-time list for most wins by a boys basketball coach.
His first 108 victories came at Kaneland, where he spent the first 6 years of his coaching career, highlighted by the Knights' regional champion team that finished 26-3 in 1962.
However, he left an indelible mark at St. Charles, where his teams won more than 600 games (602-355) the next 35 seasons.
The first of his 20 regional titles at St. Charles occurred in 1968-1969, which also was Johnson's first 20-win season as the Saints' coach.
"My first year there was in 1968-69," said Jim Parker, who spent more than 30 years on Johnson's staff as an assistant coach. "St. Charles won a regional title for the first time in 57 years. We played Kaneland in DeKalb and the gym was packed an hour before tipoff.
"On our bus ride back into town, people were lining the streets applauding the team."
Those were the days -- mind you, that was for a regional championship.
"We had a great time," said Parker. "We worked together for 32 years. Ron was a great friend and mentor for me."
Known for his crew cut and witty personality, Johnson wasn't a coach who immersed himself in X's and O's.
"Ron never changed his look and his teams played the same way," said Parker. "Kids loved playing for him. He rarely called plays -- that's certainly different from a lot of today's coaches.
"Practices were great. We worked on fundamentals and conditioning."
St. Charles North basketball coach Tom Poulin, who played for Johnson at St. Charles, fondly remembered his high school days.
"It was a lot of up and down and transition," said Poulin, whose 100th career victory ironically came over North Lawndale at the St. Charles East/Ron Johnson Thanksgiving Tournament. "He loved big guys and shooters.
"He wanted us to get out, he wanted us to share the ball, and he wanted us to play inside-out. It was fun playing for Coach Johnson. He let you enjoy the game. You worked hard and he had high expectations, but he allowed you to enjoy yourself.
"He used to sit you on the baseline before and after practice. You sat on the baseline -- he'd lean against the wall and address the team. Thinking back now, I'm happy to have had those special moments."
It was likely no coincidence that Johnson got into coaching.
After all, his dad, Mel, guided Geneva's basketball teams to a record of 563-332 during his 35-year career.
One of my favorite interviews with Ron Johnson came in March of 2015 at NIU when Geneva punched its ticket downstate with a 57-52 double-overtime win over Lake Park -- the Vikings' first state appearance since Mel's Geneva team played in Champaign 53 years earlier.
"That was an exciting time for us and the whole family," Ron had said. "I tried to go to as many of my dad's games as I could."
"I learned a great deal from Ron," said Parker. "Ron was a great person -- he was good to everybody. He had a great sense of humor."
A sense of humor he likely needed while also teaching driver's education at St. Charles.
Poulin learned a lot from Johnson as well -- and not just about basketball.
"I learned about being a man, honestly," said Poulin. "I got myself into some situations in high school that he helped me through. He was more valuable to me than I realized when I was younger. As I got older, and especially when I began coaching, I started to realize how much of an impact he had on me.
"He didn't say it, but his example was somebody who was humble, somebody who was great at what he did and successful, but he never had to tell you -- people told him."
Johnson loved to compete.
"He was a kind, nice person to anyone and everyone that he came across," said Poulin, "but he also was a fierce competitor. He taught us to compete but also how to be humble and respectful. You want your son playing for that guy."
Poulin sat down for breakfast with Johnson last fall.
"I told him that we (North Stars) had a shot at going downstate," said Poulin. "He just gave me a look and said, 'If you have better players than your opponents, then you have a shot.' I was like, 'I've got some pretty good players.'
"I feel very fortunate to have known him and to have played for him, and to get to know him as an adult. I spoke to my team the other day before film work and explained just who that guy is.
"He is St. Charles basketball."
You can reach Craig Brueske at email@example.com