NATCHITOCHES - Plaudits from Northwestern State and City of Natchitoches officials, and a 30-second standing ovation from the 150 people in the room, ushered Leon Johnson toward retirement Wednesday.
But Johnson, track and field coach at Northwestern State since 1982, said although his title and responsibilities will change, he's not dropping off the radar. While announcing his pending retirement as the Demons' head coach, to become coach emeritus if the University of Louisiana Board of Supervisors approves, Johnson said he'll be quite visible on campus and in the community well before November 9.
That day, NSU will stage a reunion of track and field athletes and coaches, featuring a brunch to honor Johnson before a home football game later that afternoon.
"I'm going to be around. I'm not going anywhere. I'm not going to retire and fade off into the background where they'll find me in my easy chair one day," said Johnson, who will turn 74 on Aug. 5. "I'm going to be a mentor for the next coach. I'm going to work for the city and the Louisiana High School Athletic Association as we continue to host the state cross country championships each November. I'll be working for Special Olympics. I'll be meet director for some of our home track meets, and I'll assist our next coach any way I can."
Johnson was a highly successful high school coach in DeRidder and Opelousas before taking the Northwestern State post 31 years ago next month. He won two state titles and his teams finished second in the state two more times at Opelousas, and he added a 1982 state title at DeRidder before succeeding Jerry Dyes as the NSU coach.
The Demons had bolted to national prominence behind a powerful sprint corps highlighted by the 1981 NCAA Champion 4x100 meter relay team of Victor Oatis, Joe Delaney, Mario Johnson and Mark Duper, and All-America throwers Steve Stockton and John Campbell. It was a program that once dominated the state school-laden Gulf States Conference when Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame member Walter Ledet was coach from 1952-64 as the Demons won five straight GSC titles and missed a sixth by half-a-point.
"My goal was to try to make the program even better than it was in the past, under Walter Ledet and the men that followed him. I followed Jerry Dyes and he had it at a very high level," said Johnson. "For 31 years, I tried to make it better. I'll be rooting for the next coach to take it to an even higher level."
Johnson is going out in style. Five NSU competitors earned All-America honors last month, awarded to top 16 finishers in each event at the NCAA Division I Track and Field Championships. The Demons' 4x100 meter relay team qualified with the 22nd fastest time but finished 12th with a season-best 39.57 time, the fastest in Johnson's era and bettered only by five foursomes all featuring Duper from 1981-82. Women's discus thrower Janae Allen was the 24th and final national meet qualifier in her event, but exploded to better her personal record by 11 feet,taking 10th with a 176-2 mark.
Johnson's tenure has produced 57 NCAA Division I All-Americans, including three NCAA or USA Track and Field champions and two USA Olympians, while the Demons have won nine conference championships. He is the only active Division I coach to have a home meet named in his honor, since the university rebranded its feature meet each season to The Leon Johnson NSU Invitational.
He has produced 105 outdoor event champions in the Southland (since 1987) and Gulf Star (1983-86) conferences, and another 51 Southland Indoor event winners. A total of 122 NCAA Championship qualifiers have been churned out by NSU under Johnson's leadership.
"Not only has his track and field team had great success at the conference level, but his program is unmatched for its number of NCAA national champions and All-Americans. Coach Johnson set the standard for national and regional excellence that we all hope to attain at the end of our careers," said Phil Olson, head coach for the past 14 years at Stephen F. Austin.
"Leon Johnson has done a tremendous job in directing the program at Northwestern State throughout his tenure. I'll especially remember the well-coached and well-disciplined teams we saw in competition," said LSU coach Dennis Shaver. "His impact on the university and our sport in the state of Louisiana cannot be measured. Leon leaves a great legacy behind for the people of Natchitoches."
Johnson has coached Northwestern State to Top 20 team finishes at both the NCAA Indoor and Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
"All those All-Americans, that just didn't happen. They had the ability to do it, and we just steered them in the correct direction. They started down the path, had tremendous desire to be good, and they were successful," he said. "Success is not hard. It's just hard work, and having direction."
He credited hundreds of athletes and assistant coaches, along with his family, for his success, and cited his two bosses at NSU.
"I've worked under two great athletic directors, Tynes Hildebrand and Greg Burke. They had as much to do with the success we've had, as I did, because they cared and they gave us the resources to be successful, and I know that will continue, and I appreciate that," said Johnson.
Johnson started the women's track and field program at NSU in 1986. He has been the driving force for more than two decades in the annual Louisiana High School Athletic Association Cross Country Championships hosted each November at NSU's Walter P. Ledet Track Complex, drawing tens of thousands of competitors and supporters to the community.
He has volunteered his time and his program's resources to annually assist causes such as Louisiana Special Olympics, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and others. Under Johnson's tenure, the Ledet Complex has also hosted countless district and regional high school track and field and cross country competitions.
""Focusing on just the Olympians, All-Americans, and other competitive success stories just scratches the surface of the impact that Leon had throughout his storied career. He was like a father to so many athletes, helping guide and encourage them," said Burke.
"I anticipate a huge turnout of track and field alumni for the November 9 event to honor Leon for his years of service to the NSU track and field program. Hopefully four months' notice will provide plenty of time those former athletes to make travel plans and be here for what will be a memorable event and a fitting tribute to Leon," said Burke. "If today's event was a microcosm of the fun we'll have in November, we'll be laughing and loving it for hours on end that day."
His retirement as head coach will be effective before the start of the 2013 cross country season in September. A successor will be in place by then, said Burke.