To many, he is known as or referred to as Coach Bob.

While Bob Johnson is well-known as a football coach, he has been much more than that.

He was a three-sport athlete at Avella High School from 1953-57 and was honorable mention all-state for the Eagles in football. He also played baseball and basketball.

Johnson, 81, and his wife Harriett, live in Washington and have three children, daughters Cheryl and Dana, and son, Tim. They have eight grandchildren.

Johnson’s athletic ability allowed him to attend Wittenberg University and start three years at linebacker and also pitch for the Tigers’ baseball team, including in the 1959 and 1960 NCAA Regional Championships.

He is also a really good dad and grandfather – a classic family man.

“Playing for Bob was certainly a great experience for me,” said Dr. Donald Snoke, Trinity’s assistant superintendent and a member of Johnson’s 1977 football team, one of Trinity’s best. “He ran a very good program, which included an extensive weight-training program.”

Roland “Ron” Parry was hand-picked by Johnson to be his top assistant at Trinity. The two have maintained a friendship since that time.

When Johnson’s first stint at Trinity ended after the 1980 season, he and Parry joined Jim Render’s staff at Upper St. Clair. When Johnson returned to coach the Hillers just before the start of the 1984 season, Parry stayed at USC one more year before returning to Trinity to coach under Johnson.

“When Bob came to Trinity, I was coaching the ninth-grade team,” Parry said. “I wasn’t learning football. We talked about Trinity football and I asked him to help me become a better coach and he said that was one of his responsibilities. He told me I was his defensive coordinator.

“Bob and I are really close. We’ve spent a lot of time together. He helped me become the coach I became. We had arguments through the years. We never left the room biter. He was a hell of a guy to coach with, a lot of fun. Nothing that ever happened related to football ever interfered with our friendship or loyalty to one another.”

Avella to Wittenberg

Johnson’s athletic prowess earned him a scholarship at Wittenberg University.

He played in the first Washington-Fayette County All-Star football game and played in the Washington County All-Star basketball game.

He started three seasons in football and was a captain his senior year. He also was a pitcher for the baseball team.

Johnson’s first coaching job was at Massillon High School, Ohio, from 1961 to 1965. He was an assistant varsity coach and head junior high coach there. He returned to Washington County in 1965, becoming an assistant to Ray Campanelli, also of Avella, at Canon-McMillan. Johnson served as the Big Macs’ assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for the 1969 season when the team won the Western Conference championship – the last outright conference title for Canon-McMillan football.

“Some friends told me about Wittenberg,” Johnson said. “I had a great experience in Ohio, both as a player and a coach.

“I learned a lot there. The coaches I worked under were tremendous. They taught me so much and allowed me to become a coach and to find ways to be a better coach.

“As a player at Wittenberg, I had the opportunity to be around Gary Tranquill (also an Avella graduate and high-profile head and assistant coach in Division I football) and a guy like Ron Lancaster, who played and coached in the Canadian Football League.”

Johnson returned to Ohio in 1971 as defensive coordinator and head track coach at Ohio Northern University. The opportunity to be a head coach at Trinity presented itself.

Johnson, who golfs two days a week and works two days a week at Indian Run Golf Club in Avella, took over a Hillers program in 1974 bereft of tradition.

Trinity had endured eight consecutive non-winning seasons and four consecutive losing seasons. The Hillers had only two winning seasons in the previous 20 when Johnson arrived.

After winning just six of 27 games from 1974-76, Johnson and Trinity enjoyed a 6-3 record in 1977 and lost those games by a total of 12 points to Upper St. Clair, Mt. Lebanon and Bethel Park in the highly-competitive Western Conference. It was a team stacked with talent, and one that could have made a mark in the playoffs.

Two years later, in 1979, Trinity went 6-4 and looked to be a contender in the newly formed Class AAAA in 1980. But a devastating opening-game loss to Washington in the season opener, 13-12, on a game-winning, walkoff punt return changed the course of Trinity’s season as the Hillers never recovered and slipped to 1-9.

That game renewed the rivalry after a seven-year hiatus, and the way it ended put a spotlight on it for many years.

Johnson admits he learned a valuable lesson that day.

“It was tough,” Johnson said. “We lost and I took it home with me. It was a natural reaction. But it was my daughter (Cheryl’s) first day going to Pitt. We were moving her in and I’m moping around and feeling sorry for myself. I realized, the game was over, and this was my daughter’s big day.

“At that moment, I realized every game is just a game. This was about my daughter and I was going to enjoy this time with her. That’s what really mattered, not losing a game.”

Johnson left Trinity after that season and joined Jim Render’s staff at Upper St. Clair for a few years (1982-83).

He returned to Trinity in 1984, after Terry Kushner resigned as head coach before that season. In fact, Johnson agreed to return while he was coaching Washington in the Pony League World Series.

After a winless 1984 season, Johnson laid the groundwork for Trinity’s best two consecutive seasons in its history. Trinity improved to 5-5 in 1985 and then set a school record of 10 wins in 1986, going 10-2 and advancing to the WPIAL semifinals for the first time. In that span, Trinity beat nemesis Washington three straight times, only the second time that happened in the rivalry.

The Hillers followed with a 7-3 mark in 1987, just missing a second straight WPIAL playoff berth. At that time, only the top two teams in each conference qualified for the postseason. The 17 wins in consecutive seasons is a school record and the back-to-back winning seasons was the first at Trinity since 1950 and 1951.

The 1986 team won the Big 10 Conference championship, the last conference title won by the Hillers.

“The 1986 team had talented players and a great leader in Brian Hilk. He and Rodney Long rushed for more than 1,000 yards and Andy Vore did a great job at quarterback. Our line was strong, and we had other good skilled players. That team had so many really good players and played together.”

Trinity’s lone WPIAL championship came in 1948 when it shared the Class AA title with Crafton.

“I loved playing for him,” said Hilk, who played running back and linebacker at Trinity and later played in the CFL. “One of the best things he did was put people in the right places where they could help the most. He assembled a great staff and he always cared about his players, on and off the field. He demanded excellence from us.

“I never heard anyone say a bad word about him. He was well-respected and well-liked.”

Johnson remained the Hillers’ coach two more years before taking a year off and becoming an assistant at Washington & Jefferson in 1991.

“He and I went to Wittenberg,” said Render, the all-time winningest coach in WPIAL history. “I didn’t know him, but I heard all these stories from Gary Tranquill, about Bob in football and baseball. I wanted to know Bob Johnson. When I got to Uniontown, we linked up and competed against one another.

“We became friends. The people at Wittenberg and Avella talked so much about him. His football background was outstanding. I felt I was the winner when I got him to coach with us at Upper St. Clair after his coaching at Trinity. Those who understand football, know about Bob Johnson. Those who understand football, knew that Trinity was not a hot spot for winning football. Bob did an admirable job there.”

Guy Montecalvo, who is Washington County’s second winningest football coach with 225 victories at Washington and Canon-McMillan, said Johnson “first and foremost is a man with integrity, character and honesty and one that I would want my son to play for.”

“I got to know him so much better after we both got out of coaching,” Montecalvo added. “He and Harriett were great supporters of their grandchildren at Canon-McMillan while I was the AD there.

“Bob was a technician as a coach. He prepared his teams well and they always played hard and hustled.”

Back to school

Johnson’s final coaching stop, along with Parry, was at W&J under John Luckhardt, who had a strategy in bringing former high school head coaches onto his staff. Bob King (Elizabeth Forward and Bethel Park), John Durham (Keystone Oaks), Kushner (Peters Township and Trinity), Jim Morris (Avella), and Joe Ravasio (Mon Valley Catholic and Ringgold), were W&J assistants, among others, during Luckhardt and John Banaszak’s tenures at W&J. High School assistants such as Ron Sicchitano, Tom Durbin, Dennis “Buzz” Scott, Parry, Tom Mitchell and Bob Freado are other examples.

During Johnson’s service with the Presidents, the team won 11 Presidents’ Athletic Conference championships and participated in two Stagg Bowls (1992 and 1994) – the NCAA Division III championship game.

“At the high school level, you have to teach,” Luckhardt said. “Those with an extensive ability to teach were really good for our program. As much as we had top-end talent, we needed people who could teach the entirety of our roster. Bob was one of the best. He brought stability and experience. He and Ron were our eyes in the press box, and they provided great information.”

Snoke, who prior to his current role was principal at Trinity and ironically became Johnson’s boss, said his “extreme respect” for his former coach was based on many things.

“He was always player and kid first, and we responded,” Snoke said. “Bob was low-key, not a rah-rah guy. He was prepared, worked hard and respected us and his coaches. He’s just a great guy.”

John Sacco writes a bi-weekly column about local sports history for the Observer-Reporter.

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