Bethel coach Steve Johnson is the son of a Chicago preacher, and he calls coaching his “ministry,’’ as happy to talk about his team’s culture of love as its physical style of play. His style has worked. Johnson took over a perennial loser in 1989 and has turned the program around, with 21 consecutive winning seasons — most in the MIAC — and five league titles since 2000, including an undisputed crown last year. Johnson talks about his style, and the season with assistant sports editor Dennis Brackin:
Q Do you think there’s still a perception that when people think MIAC football, they tend to think St. Thomas and St. John’s?
A No doubt about it. … But we don’t want to dwell on that. If you’re waiting for someone to recognize you, that’s not what we’re about.’
Q You said that even when you win, there’s a “teeny bit of underdog” about Bethel. Do you relish that role?
A I don’t know if I relish it, but I don’t mind it. As much as it’s frustrating sometimes when we don’t get recognition, I’d say more often I like [being the underdog]. It keeps us hungry.
Q How can you stay the underdog when you won the league title outright by two games last year?
A I remember that we wondered what it would be like to be .500 in the league in 1989. … So it’s a cool thing to get to where we are. But the bigger deal — and I just walked out of the weight room where guys were really getting after it — is that we have a culture where guys are happy, guys are upbeat and they’re working their tails off.
Q What’s the single key in Bethel’s turnaround?
A It might sound like a weird deal, but I think it’s about love. I said it a lot over the summer when we had a little reunion. And I talked with the kids just the other night about what the word love means. … The greatest thing about football is that it’s really, really hard. The second greatest thing is that we all need each other desperately. It’s kind of like life. Kind of like a family. If you stay together as a family, you’ve got a chance.
Q I get the feeling you talk a lot about life lessons to your kids.
A Sometimes even during the games.
Q You were 12-0 last year before losing to North Central in the third round of the NCAA playoffs when your QB, Erik Peterson, didn’t play because of injury. Peterson [the 2013 MIAC MVP] returns, along with a number of other key people. Is this team potentially as good as last year?
A I think it is. You know, the first four times we made it to the playoffs, we lost in the first round each time. They were kind of making fun of us up north [a reference he later identified as St. John’s fans]. … With the experience we have back, our expectations are high.
Q You’ve said the Bethel job is a good fit for you. What makes this a good fit?
A I went to a national convention this year, and I was talking with a lot of Division III coaches ranked high around the country, and they were talking about the stuff they had — their facilities, how many coaches. … Other people have a lot of stuff we might not have, but we’ve got cultural stuff you can’t replicate.
Q Have you had opportunities to leave Bethel after the success you’ve had?
A I think there’s been some opportunities — I’d rather not say who — but I think people just think I’m a good fit here. I’ve never really looked at anything else.