Johnson looks back on career as key coach to UI’s wrestling

Stepping down Tuesday from what he described as his “dream job,” Mark Johnson officially announced his resignation as head coach of the Illinois wrestling team.

“I knew it was my time to go. This is the right time for Mark Johnson to leave coaching,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want it to come to the point where I had Ron Guenther’s foot on my back.”

Thanking the community and the athletic department for their support of the program, Johnson looked back on a 17-year career in which he became the winningest coach in program history.

“When I stood in a press conference here 17 years ago, Illinois hadn’t won a dual meet in five years,” Johnson said. “All my colleagues thought I was nuts. They told me I was going into my death bed.”

Johnson began discussing the possibility of retiring with Guenther in November and officially delivered the news to the team Monday afternoon.

“Wrestling is a young man’s sport,” Johnson said. “You don’t see many 60-year-old coaches around.”

In his 17 seasons on campus, Johnson did more than lead his team to wins on the mat. Recently, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes recognized him with the FCA Influence Award for his exhibition of positive values and influence.

“Coach (Johnson) has always been like a father to me, and there is absolutely nothing I wouldn’t do for him,” senior Mike Poeta said in a February interview. “On and off the mat, when he talks, we all listen.”

After announcing his retirement, Johnson was named the chief executive officer of the Champaign County YMCA.

Johnson, who trained at the YMCA back in his hometown of Rock Island, Ill., during his wrestling days, will be responsible for raising funds for a new YMCA building in southeastern Champaign.

The athletic department said that a search for Johnson’s replacement will begin immediately.

“There will be a national search, just like for any position,” assistant athletics director Kent Brown said. “All the affirmative action guidelines will be followed, and the rules allow us to take at least three weeks.”

Brown also said that in-house candidates will receive consideration and that Johnson is expected to be giving his input during the process. Assistant coaches Jim Heffernan and Carl Perry will likely be strongly considered for the position.

Heffernan, who first served as an assistant to Johnson at Oregon State, has been Illinois’ top assistant coach for all 17 seasons under Johnson. A 1986 NCAA 150-pound champion and four-time Big Ten champion, Heffernan was named the 2001 Assistant Coach of the Year.

Perry was a four-year starter for Johnson from 1996-2000, winning an NCAA title in his senior season. He has served on Johnson’s staff for the last seven seasons.

Johnson leaves the Illinois wrestling program in much better shape than when he first inherited it, as the new coach will have six returning NCAA qualifiers, including All-American Jimmy Kennedy.