Success comes in twos for ‘J’
It’s hard enough for a coach to build a winning program at any level, let alone a perennial winner. It’s nearly unheard of for that same coach to build and maintain two perennial winning programs.
But that’s what Chad Johnston has done at Minneota as head coach in both football and girls basketball. Even more astonishing, because of the success that the Vikings’ football team enjoys year after year, the grid season gets extended by a deep playoff run, leaving little time to prepare for the upcoming girls basketball season.
“On some of our successful (football) seasons, I am coaching two sports at once with the help of my assistants,” said Johnston, who is also a high school physical education and health instructor. “I am fortunate to have great assistant coaches in both sports to take a lot of the load off me.”
Johnston, more commonly known as “J” or “Coach J” to his players, guided the girls’ basketball program to a spot in the Class A state tournament for the third straight year. Unfortunately, Minneota didn’t get a chance at repeating as state champions. The Minnesota State High School League, after consulting with Minnesota Department of Health officials, cancelled the tournament after the first round. Minneota had defeated Red Lake 57-37 in the quarterfinals on Thursday, March 14 to finish 31-1.
The Vikings also won a Class A state title in 2013. Johnston now owns a career record of 425-111, a robust .793 winning percentage, in 19 seasons as head coach at Minneota.
Johnston’s teams have also won state titles in football in 2009, 2014, 2015 and 2017. His career football coaching record at Minneota is 167-38 in 18 seasons.
Johnston is known for his meticulous practices, which many players said are rigorous but designed with a purpose in mind. And he not only teaches the fundamentals of basketball, but also valuable lessons that players will benefit from later in life.
“One thing that really stands out with me is the day we had just run a drill and whatever we needed for the goal, we were supposed to run a down-and-back” said Lydia Sussner, an All-State center who graduated last year. “The first time we did it, we had to run 16 down-and-backs. Then he said he would give us another chance. That time we got 21, and we ran all 21 because he was going to hold us accountable just as you have to be in life.”
Taya (Kockelman) Lindahl played four years on the varsity and graduated in 2011. She is now the head girls basketball coach at Redwood Valley.
“For me, basketball was always more than a sport. It was learning that in order to succeed, you need to work hard every day and you needed to push yourself and others around you,” she said. “Through basketball, J taught us there are failures and challenges, and it’s how you use those moments and what you do with them that defines who you are. J was always using basketball as a platform to teach us life skills and lessons.”
Johnston was born in Howard, SD (pop. 850). His family moved to nearby Flandreau, SD when Chad was four years old. He graduated in 1989 from Flandreau High School, where he was a three-sport athlete.
In high school, Johnston coached youth baseball and taught swimming lessons, stoking the coaching fire within.
“I decided that was something I enjoyed doing,” he said about coaching sports.
He then attended Southwest Minnesota State University (then SSU) and played football there.
“I originally planned on attending college to become and Art teacher,” he revealed. “But I changed my plans going into my freshman year to Phy Ed, Health and Coaching.”
After revealing a few of his drawings, it’s obvious he would have been as much of a success in art as he has been as a coach.
Johnston coached football for one season at SMSU while he was student teaching at Lakeview. He was hired the next year (1995) by Minneota, where his coaching career started as an assistant working mainly with the eighth grade and JV teams. Eventually, he became the varsity defensive coordinator, and now has been the head football coach for the past 18 seasons while compiling an impressive .814 winning percentage.
He has been the girls basketball varsity coach for 19 seasons.
His basketball coaching career began as the seventh grade coach at Lakeview while attending SMSU, and he has been a Minneota coach ever since.
“I began in junior high and then was an assistant for several years,” Johnston told.
Chad and his wife, Nicolle, a Special Education Instructor at Minneota, have been married for 11 years.
They have three sons, Easton, 12; Gage, 10; and Brooks, 7.
As with all coaches, family time is limited during the season. But the Johnston family are one big cheerleading group.
“Honestly, (Chad’s) schedule is just our life,” said Nicolle. “It was very challenging when our boys were younger. I remember going to games but not watching because I was chasing the kids.”
“The challenge for us now is the boys are in sports. We can’t be everywhere, and Chad is missing some events. We make it work, though. We feel fortunate that our family gets to do what we do. We embrace the crazy because we know nothing is guaranteed.”
Chad said his boys love the fact that their dad is a coach.
“They do not complain about me being gone for coaching,” he said. “It is toughest on my wife because I am gone a lot and she is left to tend to the kids. I know it is a struggle for her sometimes, but she is very supportive.”
The Johnston family feeds off his emotions following a win or a loss.
“I feel when there is a loss, especially during critical times, we all get emotional,” Nicolle said. “People might say it’s just a game, but it’s so much more. I often sit by myself during playoffs so I can pace or get up and leave if I get too anxious.”
Ex-players respect coach
“Throughout my years playing for Minneota, J pushed me and my teammates every day to be the best we could be,” said Lindahl. “Practices were always competitive. J was a great coach. He is very knowledgeable about the game, but was even better at getting us to buy into the culture.”
“The number of girls that he’s impacted at Minneota is truly remarkable,” said Sussner. “It’s something that’s much bigger than basketball. He cares about you as a person and not just as a player, which contributes to the success he’s had over the years.”
For the love of the game
So how is it he’s been able to coach two varsity programs for so many years?
“I believe it is the relationships that I get to build with the kids,” he explained. “They are what make my coaching possible and so enjoyable.”
Nicolle realizes her husband was meant to be a coach.
“He’s passionate about coaching,” she said. “I can’t imagine what he would do if he didn’t. It’s a part of who he is. I am grateful for the parents that allow Chad to coach and respect his integrity.”
Johnston insists that the success his teams have had stems from those around him.
“I have always said that you need to surround yourself with good people,” he said. “I have great assistants that have been with me from the start, and I think that consistency is crucial. And, we have athletes that work hard and have bought into what we are trying to accomplish. We have a school and community that is very supportive. It takes commitment from more than just the coaches to create successful programs.”