Jim Dey: Former wrestling coach up to the challenge at Y

Jim Dey: Former wrestling coach up to the challenge at Y

An early riser, Mark Johnson sometimes gets to the local YMCA for his morning workout at 5 a.m., a time when he's the only guy in the building. Others soon join him for an early morning spinning class — riding a stationary bike to high-energy music that leaves him soaked in sweat.

After wrapping up his 90-minute routine, Johnson walks to work.

It's a short jaunt from the Y's locker-room to his office in the 75,000 square foot facility he helped to build.

His commute may be brief, but the transition Johnson made from college wrestling coach to Y chief executive officer was huge. Now, five years after resigning as the wrestling coach at the University of Illinois to lead the Stephens Family YMCA of Champaign County, Johnson, who is 58, said he enjoys his job even more than he expected.

"I see the difference it makes in the community," he said.

Johnson stunned his friends and worried his wife and two daughters when he decided in the spring of 2009 to abandon a lifetime in wrestling and coaching to lead an $18 million fund-raising campaign to build a new Y in southwest Champaign.

"They thought I'd be miserable out of wrestling. I knew I needed a change," he said.

Whatever challenges he faced in making the move — and there were many — Johnson didn't seem worried. At least not in public.

"I do not lose," he said at the news conference held to announce his hiring.

The numbers confirm Johnson's expression of confidence. He presided over a successful fund-raising effort conducted in the middle of a deep recession. Boosted by multi-million-dollar gifts from, among others, local businessmen Rick Stephens and Shahid Kahn, Johnson pursued donations of all sizes from all kinds of people and wrapped up the campaign more than a year ahead of schedule

"You can't do it with just the big gifts. You can't do it with just the little gifts," he said.

Three years after Johnson was hired, the Y's new building in southwest Champaign opened. Spurred by the construction of a gleaming, new facility, Y membership jumped from 3,100 in March 2011 — before the new building opened — to 11,747 in March 2014. Indeed, Johnson said, the new Y is "getting close to capacity," prompting him and board members to start planning for future expansion.

What form that might take — an addition to the current building, a new facility elsewhere in the community — has yet to be determined. But Johnson said the Y is "not just a gym and swim"; it's an operation that serves the entire community.

He speaks with an almost religious fervor about Y programs aimed at the entire family and people with disabilities, about the $350,000 in scholarships the Y awards to help low-income individuals and families pay membership fees, about the wide variety of children and adults who patronize the Y, about the social benefits the Y provides people who stop by for a morning cup of coffee or to join friends for a fitness class.

"I want the best YMCA in the country," said Johnson, who acknowledged that it's "not a lollipop job.

He said he has had to fire as well as hire people and described himself as "disgusted" by a case of employee embezzlement.

The highly confident Johnson brought a lifetime of success to his new position. A star high school athlete in Rock Island, he was a national champion wrestler at the University of Michigan and a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team that President Carter did not allow to compete in the Moscow Olympics.

An assistant wrestling coach under the legendary Dan Gable at the University of Iowa, Johnson's first head coaching job came at Oregon State University in Corvallis, where he was the Pac-10 Coach of the Year. Johnson said Oregon's only flaw was that "it wasn't the Midwest."

When the University of Illinois offered him its head wrestling job, Johnson turned a moribund program into a consistent success — 17 straight winning seasons and a slew of coaching awards.

But wrestling coaches tend to retire early because of job stress, and Johnson said he was looking to get out when he was approached about the Y job. A self-described "weight-lifting fanatic" as a kid, Johnson said he grew up at a Y in Moline and has a stock joke about its impact on his life.

"I met my wife at the Moline Y, so half the time I'm mad at the Y," Johnson said,

Board chairman Tim Johnson said the Y needed "a top leader" and that he knew Johnson was the man for the job because "he's as good a leader as I've been around."

"Mark is not just a wrestling coach running a Y. He has become an outstanding, recognized YMCA director," said Tim Johnson, who is not related to Mark Johnson.

The old coach still follows wrestling. Last weekend, Johnson attended the NCAA wrestling championships in Oklahoma City, and he said he never misses a UI home match. Needless to say, the former top athlete places a priority on staying in good shape. He no longer sports the muscle-beach build of his wrestling days, but Johnson remains lean and fit, although not without a few chinks in his armor that he calls "part of the (wrestling) game."

"I've had a hip replacement," he said. "I need a shoulder replacement, but I'm going to put that off."

Then, there's that cauliflower ear caused by years of wrestling without head gear.

"I like that," Johnson said. "It's a badge of honor."

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at 351-5369 or by email at jdey@news-gazette.com.

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xflbk43 wrote on March 27, 2014 at 9:03 am

I find it interesting that "he's the only guy in the building" when there are usually 10-15 people waiting to enter when the doors open at 5:00 am to start our workouts.  Maybe Jim Dey should go see how many others are actually there to workout every morning at 5:00 sharp before making ssuch a statement.

ERE wrote on March 27, 2014 at 3:03 pm
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I doubt he is getting in the front door before Tim McMahon or Sandy Powell :)

Hats off to all of the early morning risers and exercisers!  

What a terrific Y. Hope things go well financially and they can build another facility, perhaps on the north side of town. Near Marketplace would be great.