Virgen: Legendary Coach Johnson changed lives

(Courtesy of Vicki Johnson)

The legendary Ernie Johnson coached only one year of football at Newport Harbor High, but he made such an impact that remains today. He motivated the players in that one year and turned the Sailors’ program into a winner, leading the Tars to their first league championship in 28 years.

Johnson died at 87 on Sept. 15. A celebration of his life will take place in El Rancho High School’s gymnasium in Pico Rivera Nov. 3 at 1 p.m.

Johnson is beloved in Pico Rivera. At El Rancho, the football field is named after him.

I am grateful I was able to meet Johnson through writing about, “Touchdown Newport,” the documentary of Johnson’s 1970 football team that won a share of the league title.

Johnson motivated the players by teasing them with a derogatory name. He said opponents only saw a bunch of, to put it cleanly, “beach girls,” when they played against Newport Harbor.

The Sailors didn’t fold. They played harder for their coach.

The majority of the players at Newport Harbor said they loved Johnson’s coaching style. He came from a military background, serving three years as a Merchant Marine in World War II and two years in the Army during the Korean War.

The discipline he acquired he passed on to his players and taught them to be better people in life.

That was seen at Newport Harbor, and definitely at El Rancho. After Newport, Johnson coached at Cerritos College from 1971-1977. Newport Harbor Coach Jeff Brinkley played under Johnson.

Brinkley learned from a great one.

Johnson’s teams went 108-31-5 between 1956 and 1968, when they played in five CIF Southern Section finals, the Whittier Daily News reported. El Rancho won three of those title games. His 1966 team went 13-0 during a season when it won CIF section, state, and mythical national titles.

Yes, he was legendary.

Johnson said he was in an entirely different world when he arrived in Newport Beach. Back in Pico Rivera, Johnson was molding young players and saving them from a life of crime and gang banging.

The Whittier Daily News reported a story told by several former players that provides an example of the respect Johnson held. Gang members returned stolen hubcaps from Johnson’s new car after they learned they were his. Plus they provided several other sets as well, according to the Whittier Daily News.

“I’m probably the richest guy you know,” Johnson told me a little more than two years ago when I asked about his life of coaching, for 40 years. “I don’t have any money really, but I have a lot of great young men that I had the privilege of coaching. In a way I see that as pretty rich. When you help them in their lives and for their future, I mean that’s what we’re out there for.”

Private services were already held for Johnson. El Rancho will also honor him during halftime of the Dons’ football game on Nov. 1.

At the celebration of his life, several of his former players are scheduled to speak. Expect them to say that Johnson was a great man and he saved many lives and made boys into men.

In lieu of flowers, memorials can be made to the Ernie Johnson Memorial Scholarship Fund, El Rancho High School, 6501 South Passons Boulevard, Pico Rivera, CA 90660.