On a Sunday afternoon 2 1/2 weeks ago, several individuals in the North Scott community rallied to organize a birthday bash for Dennis Johnson.
With cancer ravaging his body, Johnson sat in a recliner under a blue pop-up tent between the press box and first-base dugout at North Scott’s softball field.
Johnson was sporting a scarlet Lancer polo shirt and gray ball cap with sunglasses, just like he had done for more than 30 summers as the school’s softball coach.
Even in the mid-summer heat, more than 600 people — former players, coaches, colleagues, friends and community members — stood in line and waited to spend a few minutes with the Hall of Fame coach.
The 69-year-old Johnson died late Monday night at his home.
“He impacted a lot of people,” said North Scott softball coach Lea (Twigg) Rains, who was one of five Hall of Fame players under Johnson. “He was a great, great man.”
Johnson amassed 1,249 wins and never had a losing season with the Lancers. He served as head coach from 1976 to 2014, except for a five-year stretch in the early 2000s when school officials decided that the athletic director shouldn’t also be coaching.
He won state championships in 1987 and 1993 along with runner-up finishes in 2000 and 2001. Johnson was inducted into the Iowa Girls Coaches Association Softball Hall of Fame in 1998.
“He never made Lancer softball about him,” said Lori (Osterberg) Duncan, who played for Johnson and later coached against him at Pleasant Valley. “It was always about us.
“We always knew he was fighting with us and had our back. For so many of us, he was like a second father to us.”
His teams were always prepared. Scouting reports were meticulous. Practices were mapped out. Fundamentals were ingrained.
“He was very motivated and motivated to win,” Rains said. “We had our goals set and we always knew what we were going for every year.”
Johnson had the respect of his opponents, too, despite some rugged Mississippi Athletic Conference battles with fellow Hall of Fame coaches and 1,000-game winners like Dennis Schuur (Muscatine), Steve Saladino (Davenport West) and Larry Heath (Burlington).
“He was a fierce competitor,” Schuur said. “He would get on a kid but would get on them in a positive way. He would never showboat or show a player up. When he would say something, it would be constructive criticism.
“I always admired how he handled himself and how much respect he had for his players. It was rewarding to compete against those type of guys.”
Muscatine and North Scott often duked it out for league supremacy during the late 1980s and 1990s.
The schools met for the Class 3A state title in 2000, a game the Muskies won.
“We were both very competitive in nature, but we always had good sportsmanship,” Schuur said. “At the end of the day, whoever won or lost, we’d congratulate each other and pat each other on the back.”
Softball is where Johnson gained the most notoriety, but he was North Scott’s girls cross country coach from 1978-90. His 1988 squad won a state championship, making him the only coach at North Scott to guide teams to state titles in two different sports.
Off the field, he served in different capacities. He started as a drivers’ education teacher at North Scott, later moved to dean of students and was the athletic director from 1997 until his retirement in 2008.
“He never turned his back on you,” Rains said. “He was always there to help.”
Duncan said Johnson struck a good balance between being intense and dialing it back. Road trips often brought out the jovial side.
It wasn’t unusual for a card game to unfold while he was driving the team van.
“He was really good at steering the van with his knees,” Duncan said. “There were some super intense games in those van rides on Interstate 80.”
When North Scott made a trip to Burlington, he made certain to stop at a produce stand between Muscatine and Burlington to pick up a melon.
His players would pull pranks on him, too.
“It was tradition to teepee him,” Duncan said, “and he’d always catch us in the act. It was just a big thrill.”
His wife, Linda, frequently would be the one picking up the toilet paper.
"She was right there through it all," Duncan said. "She was the perfect head coach's wife. She enjoyed those seasons he coached with the players and the parents of those players."
Johnson was required to step aside for a stretch after the 2001 season because of his work as AD. Duncan coached the Lancers to a state title the next season.
“He trusted me with his team, with his girls,” she said. "I felt a huge responsibility to keep that Lancer winning tradition, to play the game right and do all the fundamentals.”
Duncan gained a greater appreciation for Johnson when she was in the opposing dugout at PV.
“It just opened my eyes to how good he really was as a coach,” she said.
Johnson took North Scott to the state tournament for the last time in 2010. He turned in his final lineup card July 15, 2014 at Solon, a 9-1 regional final loss.
He finished with a career winning percentage of nearly .800.
"I truly enjoyed watching kids do things they never dreamed they could do," Johnson said soon after his retirement. "What I appreciate about the whole thing was the great relationships I've had with kids, parents and coaches throughout the state."
Rains, who inherited the program soon after, leaned on his advice and wisdom.
“We would just have conversations about the game,” she said. “It was important to make sure the girls were having fun but also keeping them in line to win.”
The discussions subsided this year as Johnson’s health deteriorated. They would still exchange text messages occasionally.
“We talked about some things I was dealing with with our team and he helped me work through them,” Rains said. “I’ve got a lot of good memories with him.”
Johnson overcame prostate cancer once. It returned two years ago. Earlier this summer, doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, gave him three months to live.
The birthday celebration was a reunion, a final opportunity for most to swap stories, exchange laughs and tears with a North Scott icon.
It was scheduled to be a 3-hour gathering. It lasted well beyond that.
“I’d love to listen to him rehash things,” Duncan said. “He was such a good storyteller.
"We're really going to miss him."
Visitation will be held from 3-7 p.m. Friday at Faith Lutheran Church in Eldridge. The funeral service is at the church at 10 a.m. Saturday.