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Mark Johnson

- Former Illinois wrestling coach Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson enjoys a new view of his old sport.

For the first time in 40 years, the Rock Island Alleman graduate and 1980 U.S. Olympian is not on the wrestling mat as a competitor or beside it as a coach.

"It's been different. Parts of it I miss, parts I don't, but I'll always be a wrestling guy. That will never change," Johnson said.

Johnson ended his 31-year coaching career last March, stepping down after 17 seasons as the wrestling coach at Illinois to become the chief executive officer of the Champaign County YMCA.

There, he leads an organization that is working toward construction of a new facility and touches the lives of countless people in the community.

"It's been a very rewarding opportunity and from one day to the next, I enjoy what I do," Johnson said. "My wife says I still need to find a hobby. I don't think she's used to having me around the house this much, but it's been a good change for me. I was 53 years old when I got out, and it was time."

One of the high school wrestling teams in Champaign trains daily at the YMCA facility where Johnson's office is located, and he has found himself watching for a few minutes from time to time.

He has also attended the Fighting Illini's early-season home duals as a spectator, but tries to be "an invisible fan."

Johnson finds a seat, typically high in the stands and far away from the spotlight, to watch as the wrestlers he recruited compete. He typically leaves before the meet ends, not wanting to be a distraction.

That is one reason Johnson declined offers to work as an analyst on television broadcasts of the sport this season.

"I couldn't see myself sitting right next to the team I used to coach. That just wouldn't have been comfortable for me at all," Johnson said.

Johnson said he talked with his 19-year assistant and current Fighting Illini coach, Jim Heffernan, before the season and told him he wanted to give Heffernan the space he needed to assume leadership of the program.

"I told him my plans were to distance myself from everything for this year. To do anything else would not have been fair to him or the team. I still see guys around town - this is a small town - and I'll talk with them in those situations but those are pretty general conversations," Johnson said.

"I recruited them all, and I wish them nothing but success. The toughest thing of all about the entire transition was having to stand there that day and tell them that I was leaving. It was the same when I left Oregon State in 1992."

Johnson vowed at that time to himself that Illinois was going to be the final stop of his coaching career.

"I knew then that I would never leave, mostly because I didn't want to go through that again," Johnson said.

It's the day-to-day relationships Johnson established with his wrestlers and camaraderie with other coaches that he misses the most during his first year away from the sport since he was an eighth grader in 1970, a year before he first sampled the sport as a freshman at Alleman High School.

"I feel very fortunate," Johnson said. "Most coaches in wrestling don't last until 50. It's a young man's coaching profession, but I enjoyed having the chance to make a difference in a wrestler's life. I miss the coaching part of the job a great deal."

There are parts he doesn't miss, too.

The travel and time involved with recruiting and the occasional discipline matters he found himself dealing with are visible parts of the job Johnson happily traded for what he calls "more of a 9-to-5 life."

He also doesn't miss the behind-the-scenes administrative aspects of being a Division I coach, from budgeting responsibilities to the paperwork created by the myriad of NCAA rules and regulations.

People around Champaign-Urbana still call Johnson "coach" when they meet him on the street or see him attending a sporting event.

"I'm trying to be a good fan," he said. "It's been easy so far, but the Big Ten season is just starting and I haven't been on the road yet. I plan to go to the Big Ten and the NCAA meets, and we'll see how that goes."

Johnson finds new challenges in his job.

His charge includes helping the community work toward construction of a new YMCA and raising funds to make that happen.

"I believe in this organization and what it stands for. I met my wife at the ‘Y' and I remember working out at what was then the Upper Rock Island County and is now the Two Rivers YMCA. The ‘Y' doesn't turn anybody away. We're not just a gym and swim for the middle class," Johnson said.

"We have work to do. We are in a very old building. But, I've found a good fit here and I feel good about my decision last spring. I feel good about the future, too."

He and his wife are building a new home located adjacent to a Champaign-area lake.

"I remember doing a lot of fishing with my dad growing up. Coaching all these years, I've missed out on that a bit," Johnson said. "I'm looking forward to taking the time to go fishing again. Like I said, this has been a change, but it's been a good change in a lot of ways."

The Mark Johnson file

Family: Wife, Linda. Daughters, Tricia, Mackey

Education: Graduate, Rock Island Alleman High School; Bachelor of science in education, University of Michigan, 1977

Current position: Chief executive officer, Champaign County YMCA, Champaign, Ill.

Coaching experience: Graduate assistant, Iowa, 1978-80; Assistant coach, Iowa, 1982-90; Head coach, Oregon State, 1990-92; Head coach, Illinois, 1992-2009.

Career collegiate coaching record: Overall, 223-48-5, 19 seasons; At Illinois, 203-44-3, 17 seasons. Coached seven NCAA champions, 45 all-Americans and 120 NCAA qualifiers

Competitive experience: Two-time all-American at Michigan, 1976-77; Two-time national wrestling champion; member, USA Wrestling team and 1980 U.S. Olympic team

Honors: NWCA national coach of the year, 1995; Big Ten coach of the year, 2001, 2005; Pac-10 coach of the year, 1992; NWCA national assistant coach of the year, 1986; Illinois Wrestling Hall of Fame, 1987; Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame, 2000

 

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