He came from an era where football coaches were as gruff as they
come. Feared by his players, yet revered by his colleagues. One of
the most prolific and successful coaches in California high school
history, Ernie Johnson, passed away on September 15, 2013 at the
age of 86 after complications from a fall. From 1971-77 Johnson
served as the head football coach at Cerritos College, but his
influences with the program continue through today.
"I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for Ernie," said Falcon head football coach Frank Mazzotta, who took over the program after Johnson in 1978 and has been the coach ever since. "When I was a kid, my friends and I would get into a lot of trouble and Ernie pretty much saved us from all of that. There were 15 of us kids that ran through the neighborhoods in Whittier and got into as much trouble as we could find. We would go watch El Rancho High football practice - where Ernie was the coach - and were in amazement at how he talked and treated the kids. I remember sitting on the blocking dummies and just watching and listening. He pulled us all in and watched over us. When we were old enough to start high school, all 15 of us ended up on the football team and were part of the El Rancho High 1960 CIF championship team."
Mazzotta's father, who passed away at the age of 46, and Johnson were friends. It became a natural fit for Mazzotta to bond with Johnson and feels as though he lost another father on September 15 with his passing.
"He was like a pied piper of kids," added Mazzotta. "He was this rough sounding man who demanded respect and you gave it to him. But he was also very caring and made himself available and watched out for you. He was a father figure to hundreds and hundreds of kids. All 15 of us that used to get in trouble from back then remained good friends with Ernie and still met him for lunch every now and then. As old as we all are now, as soon as we walked into his company, you felt like you were still being coached and taught lessons about life. Ernie was a father to me."
From 1956-68, Johnson led El Rancho High to 10 consecutive league championships and a 108-31-5 record after turning the program around, while they won the 1966 National Championship to go along with the state championship and three CIF championships, including the 1960 team Mazzotta was a part of. He then spent the 1969 year as the defensive coordinator at Cal State Long Beach before leading the 1970 Newport Harbor High team to the Sunset League championship and CIF Playoffs in his only season.
The remarkable turnaround Johnson provided for the Newport Harbor team has spawned a movie called "Touchdown Newport" that premiered at the 2013 Newport Film Festival. The documentary focuses on the success of the Sailors that season and is narrated by actor Kyle Chandler. Those involved in the production expect the film to be available for purchase by next year. Prior to his passing, Johnson was able to attend the premiere, as well as numerous players from the team.
After his one season with Newport Harbor, Johnson was brought in to be the head coach for the Falcons in 1971 after Smokey Cates was let go. He led the 1972 team to the South Coast Conference championship and ended the year with a 12-10 loss to Fresno City College in the state playoffs. It was his only winning season with Cerritos and was relieved of his head coaching duties after the 1977 season.
"Ernie wasn't the popular choice to be named the head coach in 1971," said Mazzotta. "The athletic director at the time, Don Hall, was considering both John Ford and Dallas Moon to be the head coach. But neither of them accepted the job offer and Ernie stepped in and said he would be willing to take the job. So from the start, he wasn't the popular choice, but he gave everything he had to the college and the job."
Mazzotta was brought in as a line coach in 1976 after serving as the head coach at Warren High for three seasons. But Johnson's influences were far-reaching for Mazzotta, as he helped him get an assistant coaching job at El Rancho in 1968 after spending a couple years as an assistant coach at the University of Utah, where he concluded his playing career. And when Johnson was let go as the Falcon head coach at the conclusion of the 1977 season, Mazzotta was introduced as the new head coach. The first assistant coach Mazzotta brought in? Ernie Johnson.
Johnson stayed with Mazzotta for four seasons and then stepped down from coaching. He remained at Cerritos College as a faculty member until his retirement in 1992. Another connection Ernie had to the Falcon football program was that his Fullerton High School football coach was the father of Gene Martin, who was on the college's first football coaching staff.
There will be a dedication to Ernie Johnson's life on Sunday, November 3 at 1:00 p.m. at the El Rancho High Gymnasium. Mazzotta is scheduled to be one of the speakers at the event. On November 1, the El Rancho football team will host a dedication to Johnson on the field that is named in his honor.
Photos courtesy of Vicki Johnson