Michael Johnson is entering his third year as an assistant football coach at Salem High School and currently holding the title of offensive coordinator and assistant head coach. A graduate of Mary Persons High School in 2008 and Valdosta State in 2013, Citizen sports editor Colin Hubbard spoke with Johnson on how his coaching journey has led him to Salem.
CH: Where did you grow up in Georgia and what were your sports of choice in high school?
MJ: I grew up in Juliette, Georgia which is down in Monroe County. I graduated from Mary Persons High School. While I was at Mary Persons, I played football for four years and ran track for two years. If you know anything about Forsyth, Georgia, football is king. Literally the whole town shuts down on Friday nights because there’s not much else to do there.
CH: What position did you play?
MJ: It’s funny. In my earlier years, I was actually a nose tackle and a tight end. Halfway through my sophomore year, I finally went to receiver and cornerback, where I ended up playing for the rest of my high school career.
CH: Where did you end up going to college after graduation?
MJ: Well, I had an academic scholarship to Savannah State and I was supposed to be a preferred walk-on. But right before my high school graduation, the head coach was fired. I still went, but I was going to have to wait until January to walk on. By the end of my freshman year, I ended up having to go home to take care of some personal stuff with my family and transferred to Valdosta State.
CH: What was that experience like going to Valdosta State?
MJ: Valdosta State was awesome. Coach (Trey) Camps at Eastside went there and I knew him while I was there. When I was there, I was a student assistant and video coordinator, so I got a chance to work with the football team, film practices, break down the game film and travel to all of the games. My last year there was the year we won the national title, so that was a great experience.
CH: Was that around the time where you started thinking you would like to become a coach?
MJ: Right before I graduated, I had a coach at Mary Persons named Grant Chesnut, who is actually now the offensive coordinator at Kennesaw State. He was our offensive line coach and I reached out to him about coaching. He’s actually the first person I ever spoke with about coaching. Once I got to Valdosta State, one of my professors introduced me to a middle school coach and was pretty much the guy who got me started in coaching. I was able to work for Valdosta State while getting to coach over at Lowndes Middle School on a voluntary basis.
CH: What kind of step did you take once you graduated? Was the plan to try and become a coach right away or did you have aspirations of doing something else?
MJ: The plan was to get a teaching position somewhere and coach. After I graduated, I got a job at a middle school up in Jefferson County, about 30 minutes south of Augusta. There, I actually coached football, basketball and baseball. They let me call the offense. I did that for two years until coach Lee Hannah, the head coach at Miller Grove now, called me and wanted me to come to Baldwin. I went to Baldwin and from there I ended up at Salem two years later.
CH: How did you end up at Salem? Did you reach out to head coach Jarrett Laws or was it Laws reaching out to you?
MJ: We were in a coaching transition down at Baldwin and I had sent out a few emails. I contacted coach Laws and he contacted me back. He told me that he was pretty familiar with my work and knew some of the guys that I had worked for. He told me that they had a position at Salem and were interested in bringing me in. I had heard of him during his time coaching at Griffin because it’s not too far from my hometown. We just hit it off pretty nice.
CH: What did coach Laws originally bring you on to do as far as coaching?
MJ: When he brought me on, it was his first year instituting a passing game coordinator. I was going to coach the wide receivers and I was going to coach the quarterbacks along with him. I was pretty much in charge of getting the passing game together. Whether it was scripting or making sure I had my position group together. This year, I made the transition over to offensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
CH: How exciting was it for coach Laws to have the trust in you to take the next step as an offensive coordinator and on top of that, being named the assistant head coach? That’s got to be a pretty good feeling.
MJ: It was a great feeling, actually. It kind of caught me off guard because I know how passionate coach Laws is about play calling. He always says that’s his baby, so for him to put the trust in me, that was big. It’s just made me focus even more and buckle down even more. If I don’t perform, it’s not always going to come back directly to me. It’s going to come back to him, too. So it’s pretty much my job to continue to make his image be what it is.
CH: In these eight years coaching, how much better do you feel like you’ve gotten as a coach with the several stops that you have had?
MJ: Every stop that I’ve been at, I’ve learned something new. When I first went to the middle school, fresh out of college, the first thing that you think about is scheme. When I got to Baldwin, after two years there, coach Hannah taught me about character building and program building. When I got here to Salem, coach Laws has taken the top off of things and has transformed me as a man, which made me a better coach. He has made me a better coach on the field, but off the field he has made a bigger change with me mentally.
CH: With as well respected as coach Laws is in the metro Atlanta area, how often do you sit down with him and pick his brain?
MJ: I think at times coach Laws may get tired of me. Everytime I see him, I try to pick his brain about something. Sometimes, I’m not even trying to pick his brain and he’ll just kind of plant something into me. It might not even be football related. It might be life related or school related. There’s never a moment where you ask him something and you see frustration on his face. He’s really been a mentor and has helped me progress as a man and as a coach.
CH: Since you have been at Salem, you have had an opportunity to work with some really talented wide receivers and a quarterback in Donald Wilson. How much more fun did that make your job getting to work with a lot of talented players?
MJ: I loved all of those guys. We always talk about YAC nation, but it didn’t matter if it was the starters or the rotational guys, they have been a joy to work with. From the first year that I got here until last year, those guys have made my job a lot easier.
CH: What would you say is the most rewarding and most fun part about your job as a coach?
MJ: Just the relationships and being able to build on that with the kids. Being able to talk to the kids about other things outside of sports. About life. Seeing a kid go from what he was as a freshman or sophomore to what he becomes as a junior or senior. In the end, it’s always been about the kids.
CH: You’re probably not going to be at Salem forever. Is one day becoming a head coach one of your top goals that you’re shooting for?
MJ: That’s one of my big goals in the future. Right now, I’m just focusing on this season and focusing on the program that I’m at. Being the best assistant, the best coach, mentor whatever it is that I can be. In the future, If I’m given that opportunity, a head coach is something that I’m interested in.
CH: How do you get better as a coach? Do you assess yourself at the end of every year on areas that you feel like you need to get better at? How do you evaluate yourself as a coach?
MJ: I really try to evaluate myself at the end of each day and each practice. I live about 25 minutes away, so on the ride home, I try to evaluate what could I have done better. What were the things that I did well and what were the things that I didn’t do well. I always feel that there is room for growth.