CHAMPAIGN — James Johnson has been St. Thomas More’s steady coaching hand for years.
He was by far the longest-tenured athletic leader at a school that features a fair amount of turnover in that department, overseeing both Sabers boys’ and girls’ soccer programs for nine seasons.
“I love STM, and it’s always going to have a place in my heart,” the 32-year-old Johnson said. “The decision to pursue the college coaching opportunity was difficult. I’m invested, and I care about those teams greatly.”
Johnson did decide last month that it was time to try something different in the coaching ranks, accepting the role of becoming the Parkland women’s soccer coach.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to coach college soccer and to return to college soccer as a coach,” said Johnson, who played four years at Loras College in Iowa after graduating from Peoria Notre Dame in 2006. “That is the big reason, to try and get my foot in the door in the junior-college world in between maybe high school and the full four-year experience.”
Johnson boasts a strong high school coaching record, primarily in the state of Illinois.
He actually landed his first coaching role as an girls’ assistant coach for Dubuque (Iowa) Wahlert in 2007, while he was at Loras. Johnson returned to Peoria Notre Dame in 2010 as a boys’ and girls’ assistant coach, helping the Irish boys to a Class 2A state championship that year.
Johnson entered STM’s soccer realm in 2011 and rapidly turned it into a local powerhouse.
His boys’ programs won five Class 1A regional championships and 147 matches, while his girls’ teams captured seven regional crowns, three sectional titles and a 2015 fourth-place state finish en route to 111 victories. Johnson’s final girls’ campaign this past spring was canceled in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“STM soccer has formed my identity as a person,” Johnson said. “I learned a lot about myself while doing that. The one thing, of course, that is most notable is the relationships, hands down.
“I felt like we were able to leave the program in a better place. Every year the players bought into that mindset, and all the credit really goes to them for being willing to work so hard and get the program where it’s at right now.”
Johnson now turns his attention to the Cobras’ women program, which has struggled since qualifying for the 2016 NJCAA Division I national tournament.
Johnson replaces Jason Gough, who was hired in December but never coached a game at Parkland. Prior to Gough, the Cobras compiled a 17-28-3 record in three seasons under Tim Notz.
“(Joining Parkland) was in the works for a while,” Johnson said. “Actually, several people had mentioned to me the possibility the last time it came open, which was in the fall (of 2019). But I felt I was committed to STM at that point.”
When Gough stepped away, though, Johnson couldn’t pass up on a second chance at the job.
Johnson credited both Josh Alford, who led the Parkland women to that 2016 NJCAA tournament bid and now is a women’s assistant coach at Northern Iowa, and Cobras athletic director Brendan McHale for putting Johnson in a position to apply for and accept his new job.
“(Alford) believed in me, and I think his word and him vouching for me meant a good deal,” Johnson said. “(McHale has) put a lot of trust in me and believes in my abilities as a coach, so I’m thankful for him for taking a chance on a new college coach.”
Johnson feels the relationship-building aspect of his coaching style will translate to college.
“Just trying to gain their trust and show how much I care about them,” Johnson said. “At STM we had a family culture, and that’s the goal at Parkland.”
Making local recruiting inroads shouldn’t be difficult for Johnson, given his longstanding ties to the area prep scene. In fact, Johnson was involved in a college signing last Thursday when 2020 Champaign Central graduate Naomi DuPree signed with the Cobras.
“Beginning my college coaching career during COVID-19 is a hard thing,” Johnson said. “It’s tough with recruiting. I’m trying to get some more players in the program, and recruiting looks different now. You’ve got to do a lot of it on film as opposed to seeing players in action.”
Johnson acknowledged he “is a competitive person,” so it’s unlikely Cobras fans will hear any excuses coming from the first-year coach if success isn’t immediate.
That, of course, is not something Johnson is considering.
“One of our goals is to not only reinvigorate Parkland soccer, but to showcase the quality of soccer that is in the Champaign and central Illinois area,” Johnson said. “We’re hoping to kind of put Champaign soccer on the map, as well as Parkland soccer.”