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Hall of Fame Spotlight: Phil Johnson

Posted: Wednesday, March 6, 2024 - 11:38 AM

HOF Class of 2024
Hall of Fame, Phil Johnson

Phil Johnson

At the beginning of his varsity boys high school soccer coaching career in 1981, Stillwater’s Phil Johnson had a style that mirrored that of many young coaches. The focus was on the short-term, and frankly, that meant winning. He believed, like many other young coaches, that he could control winning the game.

It wasn’t working. Despite an 11-38-2 record in his first three seasons, Connie Knoche, Stillwater’s activities director at the time, urged him to be patient. In searching for answers, and through continuing education and soccer seminars, he discovered things about himself that he didn’t like.

“I came to look into my “coaching mirror” and I saw coaching behaviors I did not like,” Johnson said. “A lot of coaching behaviors changed when I learned to operate on the “control” side of the Control/Can’t Control Model. It took work.

“Soccer is a players game. Good coaches in this game are not manipulators. I learned how soccer is a game of flow with many key moments of critical action. I had to teach those moments in our training. Most importantly, I needed to ask my players questions so they became invested in solutions and in being positive and precise in those game-changing moments. Thus, my teaching words were far less “telling,” rather, I asked them what are your choices? Can you find a better solution next time? My coaching changed and my peace of mind changed.”

So did the results and a lofty status as one of the most respected soccer coaches in the nation.

After his coaching epiphany, Johnson and the Ponies bolted to a 440-118-62 record to complete a coaching journey of 451-156-64 that now includes induction into the Minnesota State High School League’s Hall of Fame. Johnson is one of two coaches in the Class of 2024 that will be inducted on Sunday, April 14 at the InterContinental St. Paul Riverfront Hotel.

Johnson, who retired as an elementary school teacher in 2007, was selected the National High School Large School Coach of the Year in 1997 when the Ponies were the top-ranked boys soccer team in the nation. He also was Minnesota’s coach of the year in 1996 when Stillwater captured its second state championship. Johnson led the Ponies to 17 conference titles and 16 section crowns. The Ponies, which placed third four times in the state tournament, had a 40-game winning streak during a spree of 62 games without a defeat.

Under the tutelage of Johnson, Stillwater has had three Mr. Soccer Award winners and four All-Americans.

He retired after the 2012 season, ending a 32-year prep coaching career, and really, a journey of teaching soccer to the entire St. Croix River Valley and throughout Minnesota. He did not have a losing season during his tenure after 1983. In his retirement, he has been an instrumental leader with the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association as an author of a coaching curriculum. As well, for decades, he has introduced adults to the game of soccer through community education.

When Johnson announced his retirement, former Bloomington Jefferson coach Danny Storlien told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that Johnson was “the ultimate ambassador for soccer in Minnesota.“

“He coaches players, and he teaches coaches how to coach,” Storlien said. “He’s a leader in coaching education and has been a mentor to so many of us. It still amazes me to this day the amount of time Phil spends trying to become a better coach. He never passes up a moment to continue his personal coaching by attending a course, clinic or convention. “He is always looking for ways to improve his craft, and very few can say that at the end of their career. He will be remembered by his peers as one of the all-time great Minnesota soccer coaches.”

Johnson was born in China and spent his formative years in Taiwan, raised by missionary parents. Playing soccer on sun-baked clay, he and others would make do with their surroundings, which sometimes meant having to shoo away the water buffaloes or making goals without posts. From coming to the United States when he was 9, to playing soccer and letting it evolve into a successful coaching and teaching journey, Johnson is quick to deflect any credit.

“I stood on many shoulders who were in the business of teaching and coaching young people,” he said. “From learning patience to using precise words to elevate players' performances, many in this profession have made a lasting imprint on my coaching career. Creating a fun learning environment was paramount.”

In a letter of support of Johnson’s Hall of Fame nomination, a former sports reporter wrote of him: “In reality, he is an artist. He used the classroom and the soccer field as his canvas to paint a picture of the life successes of his students and players. In his kind, eloquent and gracious manner, he skillfully instructed and expertly challenged.”

Hall of Fame, Phil Johnson Action Shot

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