BISMARCK — As a young man growing up in Rantoul, Tom Johnson always wanted to participate in athletics.
“I don’t remember wanting to do anything as much as I wanted to coach,” Johnson said. “I just wanted to be involved as much as I could.”
As he winds down his final year as Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin athletics director and ends his over 50-year run being involved in some way with the school, he has more than fulfilled that childhood goal.
Johnson went to Western Illinois University and after that, he took a job at Bismarck as a Physical Education teacher and an assistant coach in football, wrestling and track.
It was in his first semester in 1970 at Bismarck where he met a mentor that made an impact for his career even though this mentor was not around that long.
“When I got there, there was a gentleman there, Juby Parke, who was well-respected and well-known,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, that first January I was there (1971), he passed away from cancer. I was offered the head football job and the rest kinda happened.
“I worked with him one fall and he was outstanding. I felt that I missed out of a lot if he was around for a few more extra years, but it didn’t happen. Most of my career, I was a head coach and the coaches that were my assistants were important to me. Greg Lewis, Bill Madden were great assistants to me and in wrestling, a man named Mike Johnson was my assistant for many years and he played an extremely big part for us.”
Johnson would take over from Parke and would go 8-0 with the Blue Devils in each of his first two seasons. Johnson would add track coach and wrestling coach to that total and would have success as well.
In 1995, he added the job of athletics director to his plate.
“The principal at the time, Ron Winkler, asked if I wanted the job and I said yes,” Johnson said. “At the time, I was head football coach, head wrestling coach and head track coach and he told me that I have to get rid of one of them and I gave up being track coach.”
He would remain football and wrestling coach until 2003, when he retired as a teacher from the school. He ended up with over 400 wins as wrestling coach and was 154-135 as football coach.
“It could be busy, but I wanted to be athletics and that is what I went to college for,” Johnson said. “I retired and then I stayed on as part-time athletics director up until this year.”
Other than adding the Rossville-Alvin to Bismarck-Henning, Johnson has seen some major changes since he started at Bismarck and even after being athletics director.
“The biggest change is how many things we have added since I was athletics director. We have added golf, soccer, softball and we have added more opportunities for kids,” Johnson said. “In the fall, we have football, volleyball, soccer, boys and girls cross country and golf and for a school our size, it is a lot.”
Also what is impressive is that the teams have kept up with numbers in times when a lot of schools have trouble fielding teams in certain sports.
“We do a pretty good job of having kids hang on and I am especially proud of what the coaches have done this year with a Covid and everything,” Johnson said. “Our numbers have stayed pretty consistent this year and it was because of the coaches.”
In his last season as athletics director, Johnson had to deal with the pandemic and his years of experience came into play.
“The difficult thing was things kept changing,” Johnson said. “We were told these were going to be our seasons and we set up the schedule and it changes. You try it again and it changes, you try again and you have to set up again. It wasn’t just me, all athletics directors had to do three different football schedules, three different basketball schedules, three different wrestling schedules and it goes on and on.
“I had done things long enough to know how to do things and when to do them. I am not sure teachers in the classroom had that advantage. It was a whole new world for them and I respected what they did throughout this whole thing compared to doing what I was doing.”
In retirement, Johnson said that he will not be far when BHRA athletics get going again in the fall.
“People will still see me. I had people ask me what am I going to do and I say hopefully, not a lot. I have worked for 51 years and it is time to relax,” Johnson said.