Jeff Johnson has seen a lot, done a lot and led the Cortland High athletic department through countless changes in his 18 years as athletic director.
“I was very fortunate to be the Director of Athletics and Physical Education at a great school district like the Cortland Enlarged City School District,” said Johnson, who will retire from his position at the end of the month. “I had the opportunity to work with a great coaching staff, at every level, that works extremely hard to provide a quality sports experience for the student athletes. They focus on academics as well as athletic and are really professional and caring in dealing with the student athletes.
“I’m proud of the accomplishments of those athletes and our teams, which remain very competitive,” he added. “I really appreciate how supportive the community has been of our programs, and am very proud of the fact that 19 or 20 teams every school year are named New York State Scholar-Athlete teams, a tribute to the great teaching and coaching staffs here.”
Johnson graduated from Little Falls High School and went from there to Niagara University, where he played baseball and was the captain of the team his senior year. He earned his Masters in Education from St. Lawrence University and his Certificate of Advanced Study in Educational Administration from SUNY Oswego. Johnson spent 17 years as a high school coach, including four at Morristown High School (baseball and boys’ basketball) and 12 at the Oswego City Schools (football and boys’ basketball). His baseball teams at Morristown won two Northern Athletic Conference championships and one Section 10 Class D title, and he led one OHSL championship basketball squad at Oswego.
Johnson’s successor — Tim Wagoner, who starts July 1 — is a native of the north country (see related story). He will relinquish his duties as athletic director at Gouverneur Central at the end of the month and head south.
In all, Johnson has been involved in education for the past 34 years. In 2012, he earned national certification as an athletic administrator from the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.
Johnson has also been active in Section 3 of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association over the years, as a member of the football, basketball and ice hockey committees as well as the section’s athletic council and the Onondaga High School League executive committee.
“I’ve also been fortunate,” he said, “to have had the opportunity to work with John McNerney and John Tobin of the Cortland Youth Bureau, which is a great feeder program. They re two very dedicated individuals who have contributed to the overall success of our program.
“Jeff’s a dot the i’s and cross the t’s guy,” said Tobin, a retired teacher and long-time Cortland High coach (baseball at all levels, junior varsity football and basketball) who still dedicates much of his time to providing the city’s youth with solid athletic opportunities. “He takes care of all the details and is one of the most meticulous people I’ve ever met. He’s very efficient and supportive of his coaches and teams, follows the rules and everything works out well. He’s always been there at every event; the times there was a lot going on he got to all of them and made sure everything ran smoothly.
“It will be very difficult to find someone with his work ethic. He was always working for the school or section and was very honest about things. He’s one of those guys who looks out for the majority. I think that he’s a real good leader, and he will definitely be missed.”
“It’s been great to see various members of out coaching staff achieve milestones,” Johnson said. “I’m also proud when kids are recognized with awards for sportsmanship, as our football team was last fall with the Francis J. Clark Sportsmanship Award.”
Mick Lowie, the winningest varsity boys’ basketball coach ever at CHS, was also the varsity softball coach for a few years and a coach with the football program. He said of Johnson that “It took some time for Jeff and the coaches to develop some rapport and trust, as would be the case for anyone in charge of a department. I felt fortunate knowing that Jeff was a basketball guy and that he understood the long season and being in charge of other teams in the program. We hit it off pretty quickly and developed a good working relationship.
“In our case, I really felt that Jeff fought for the freshman basketball program, which is still in place,” added Lowie. “And when we needed something we could go in at the end of the year and he’d find a way to do it for us. I was always appreciative of that. He got more and more comfortable with the job, the coaches got more and more comfortable with him and we were able to have a good working relationship.”
Homer athletic director Mike Carboine was a professional colleague of Johnson’s and said that “Jeff is one of the most professional people I’ve ever worked with. Even with the rivalry, we always had a great professional relationship. When I started out at Homer (in 2002), he helped mentor me and get me up to speed on the rules and regulations of New York State.
“I consider him a good friend and certainly wish him well.”
Asked about the things he’s proudest of in his time at Cortland High, Johnson said that “I would point toward the fact that our programs are competitive, we’ve been able to put together outstanding coaching staffs and have been able to develop the facilities, which are some of the best in Central New York thinks to the support of the community. I’m very proud that we’ve had a number of successful teams, some of which have been state-ranked.The coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for that.”
As for his post-CHS plans, Johnson said that “I still plan to be involved in athletics. I’ve really enjoyed living in Cortland and being part of the community. It’s a great community that really supports athletics.”
And what advice would he give his successor?
“Stay focused on the most important things — the students, the student-athletes,” Johnson said. “Do what’s best for the kids and the overall program. Continue to support the outstanding coaches we have, and work hard. I wish whoever it is the best of luck.”