It only took 38 years for Gary Johnson to get to this point.
After a his football playing career ended after playing Willamette University in 1978, he took his first coaching position with the goal of becoming a head football coach.
There have been a lot of stops along the way and he has made an impact on many programs in which he’s coached, but this time is different.
When Salem Academy’s football team (10-2) plays Harrisburg (9-3) at 11 a.m. in Saturday’s OSAA Class 3A state championship game at Hillsboro Stadium, it will mark the first time as a head football coach Johnson will head a football team in a state title game.
Retired from teaching full-time, he is in his third year as head coach at Salem Academy, and all the years of experience are being put to good use.
“I think it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time and that God has put me here to enjoy it, to help lead these young men to a place they haven’t been,” Johnson said.
“We’re blessed to have great assistant coaches here, and they’ve all had a hand in getting us to where we’re at right now.”
Until Johnson arrived at Salem Academy, the football team was mostly overlooked, and for good reason.
Before his first year as head coach – 2014 – Salem Academy had last been in the state playoffs in 1991 and there had been some lean seasons.
Well, a lot of them.
Plenty of coaches came and went through the program, but none could get the team to the next level until Johnson came along.
It’s no surprise that most of this year’s senior class – including quarterback Colton Daniels, receivers Skyler Williams and Rylan Stamback and linemen Zac Ramillosa and Sam Schmidt, linebacker Grant Webb – have been playing on the varsity team since Johnson arrived in their sophomore year.
“They’re all good guys,” Johnson said. “There’s not much ego in any of them. They may look like they’re cocky or look like they’re showing those kinds of tendencies, but they’re just having fun.
“They enjoy being around each other and in competition. They’re all extremely competitive. That’s how we got things turned around because of those kinds of kids.”
Johnson’s path as a coach to this point has involved a lot of stops.
After graduating from Willamette, he started out at Glencoe as an assistant in football and basketball. He came to Cascade in 1982 as an assistant football coach under Karl Elliott and took over as head girls basketball coach.
It was during his time at Cascade – coaching with a number of fellow former Willamette football players – that he accomplished his greatest feat as a coach until now.
He coached Cascade’s girls basketball team to the 1985 state championship, but soon left amid the fear of budget cuts and spent the next decade in the Beaverton district at Aloha.
Remember that it was 31 years ago that he won his last state title.
“I don’t have any regrets, but I do wish I had been (at Cascade) longer,” Johnson said.
A Woodburn High School graduate, Johnson lived in Woodburn most of his life and in 1997 was hired as the head coach, his first head coaching position in football.
The only problem was that the team struggled to sustain numbers, moved up to the biggest classification in the state – Class 4A at that time – and played an independent schedule most seasons.
He stayed on teaching a few more years at Woodburn after quitting as head football coach, but started coaching at North Marion as an assistant football and girls basketball coach until retiring in 2012.
It wasn’t until he had been retired a year that he got restless and came to Salem Academy.
It’s not coincidence that in 2014 Salem Academy was 5-5, but made the state playoffs for the first time in 23 seasons. In 2015 Salem Academy was 8-3 and reached the state semifinals. This year the team was the co-PacWest Conference champions.
“My career path was first of all spurned on by my desire to be a head football coach in high school, and I had a lot to learn and still do,” Johnson said.
“My journey was to try and get to that point, and I thought the decisions were professionally made to get to that level.”
The Salem Academy football team is used to being overlooked.
The team was undervalued as the No. 12 seed for the state playoffs, has been on the road the entirety of the state playoffs and has pulled off upset after upset.
In that way the team’s journey is much like its coach’s journey.
“Football’s my first love,” Johnson said. “I grew up playing in Woodburn and loving the game and went to Willamette and had a good college career, and it was fun.
“I always knew I wanted to work with kids and wanted to teach. My dad always said if you’re not going to be a preacher be a teacher and influence kids and help kids.”
bpoehler@StatesmanJournal.com or Twitter.com/bpoehler