Saturday’s overtime loss at Penn State stung the Gophers, but not nearly as much as the news that followed.
Dick Johnson, the 77-year-old father of offensive coordinator Jay Johnson, had died of a heart attack that morning. The family waited to tell Jay until after the game, an eventual 29-26 loss.
“That’s the way Dick would have wanted it,” Lakeville South coach Larry Thompson said Sunday. “He’d say, ‘Let Jay focus on his job, and we’ll talk afterward.’ He wouldn’t have wanted anything to interfere with that team.”
Dick Johnson also had close connections with the Leidner brothers, Mitch and Matt, after serving as an assistant coach at Lakeville South. They called him “Magic” Johnson. So the news hit the Gophers hard, heading into Saturday’s home game against Iowa.
“Would give a lot to say one last goodbye,” Matt Leidner tweeted. “Magic was a man of great character and was a huge impact on me growing up. R.I.P.”
Gophers coach Tracy Claeys said: “We will do everything we can to comfort Jay and his family and help them through this. … But at the same time, the season doesn’t stop. So we’ve got to keep moving on, and we will.”
It’s the second time this season that the Gophers have lost an extended family member. Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel’s father, John, died of pancreatic cancer Aug. 16.
The team also endured several anxious days in August when linebackers coach Mike Sherels was clinging to life because of a severe intestinal condition. He continues to recover.
Still, the Gophers’ 3-1 start has come with some heavy doses of perspective.
“This game creates tough people, and you learn how to get through tough times,” Claeys said. “We will make our way through it and not use it as an excuse. We’ve had a few situations this year, and we will keep battling.”
Thompson said he feels like he lost a brother, in Dick Johnson. They coached together for more than three decades.
“When I first started, I was an assistant under him, and when I got the job, I didn’t hesitate to add him to my staff,” Thompson said. “He was such a special person. He made such an imprint on so many people in Lakeville.”
Thompson said the older Johnson suffered a massive heart attack about 30 years ago, but he concentrated on his health and kept in good shape. The good friends saw each other last week, as Johnson continued to help out around South’s football program.
Last week, Dick Johnson got to watch his grandson — Jay’s son, Cole — play football. He also attended the annual showdown between Lakeville South and Lakeville North.
The list of all-state quarterbacks Dick Johnson coached includes Mitch Leidner, Jay Johnson, Josh Lucas, John Guentzel, Marcus Brumm and John Bowenkamp.
“All you had to do is hang around the high school coaches, and it’s pretty obvious the respect that people had for him and his influence throughout the state on the game of football,” Claeys said.
After playing for his father, Jay Johnson went on to become a three-time all-conference quarterback at Northern Iowa before launching his own coaching career. That career kept him out of state for 20 years before he returned home to take the Gophers job in January.
“It was a dream for Dick, having his son back in Minnesota, with Mitch there playing for him,” Thompson said. “Those are his two favorite quarterbacks. He was so excited about it. He’ll be watching all of it now up in heaven.”
Joe Christensen covers college football for the Star Tribune. E-mail: email@example.com