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The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

Royals’ season survives, Johnson’s legacy kept alive

Bethel University beats Concordia College 31-14 in Head Coach Steve Johnson’s final regular season game to keep MIAC Championship hopes alive.

Steve Johnson paced around a huddle of Bethel University football players following the team’s 31-14 win over Concordia College. Johnson announced to his team Monday, and later to the Bethel community, that this season would be his last. 

While his career as a whole lives on for one more week, Johnson gave his traditional post-game lesson – often about the privilege of God’s freedom, handling challenges in real life and being a “soft-hearted, tough sucker” –  extracted from the game. 

“It’s bigger than football. He instilled a lot of real- life things I need to learn … throughout my career.” – Caleb Harris, wide receiver

In his post-game talk Saturday, Johnson told his players that anything meaningful – such as competing for a MIAC Championship – is a battle. One of Johnson’s many philosophies is that a victory in battle is possible with help from and trust in God, whom Johnson describes as  “your base.” Coming into Saturday, the team knew the stakes of the game, but as he has done for every football lesson over the past 34 years, Johnson made sure to relate the situation to life. 

“It’s bigger than football,” fifth-year wide receiver Caleb Harris said. “He instilled a lot of real- life things I need to learn … throughout my career.” 

The game held even more weight than being Johnson’s last regular season game as Bethel seniors took on their last match of the regular season and the team fought for their third MIAC Championship trip in a row.

Head Football Coach Steve Johnson embraces sophomore running back David Geebli after Bethel’s 31-14 victory over Concordia College. Johnson earned his 251st win in the final regular season game of his career Saturday, concluding 34 years of positive impact on each of his players. “The King of Kings sent his kid so we can run, so how dare we not?” Johnson said. | Photo by Devanie Andre

Bethel started the game hot, intercepting a pass on Concordia’s first drive of the game and returning it for a touchdown, giving the Royals an early lead. Concordia answered with its own touchdown, but that was as close as they would come to winning as the Royals rolled through the Cobbers’ defense all afternoon for three additional touchdowns and a field goal. 

The win concluded a 7-2 regular season after a 1-2 start to the year, giving the Royals their third straight MIAC Skyline Division title and another shot at the MIAC Championship. 

“[It] feels really good,” Johnson said. “We got … guys [that will] stay together. It’s a big deal. I’m really proud of them.” 

“I can’t put into words the impact that [Johnson’s] had on me. It’s a transformational experience … just the way that he runs his program, the way that he treats his players, the way that he treats his staff. He loves us.”  – Chad Richards, Offensive Line Coach and Recruitment Coordinator

After the win, the video board on the west end of the field displayed a ten minute video tribute featuring many of “Coach J’s” former players expressing their gratitude for the difference he made at Bethel. Friends, alumni and family then gathered for a celebration of the head coach’s accomplished career at Bethel’s Sports and Recreation Center to share memories from the past 35 years and thank him for the difference he made in many players’ lives. 

Johnson roams the sideline during a timeout. Johnson earned a win in his first ever game as Bethel’s head coach in 1989 and, like he has for many years since, now aims to win a MIAC championship for the first time since 2013. | Photo by Devanie Andre

“I can’t put into words the impact that he’s had on me,” Offensive Line Coach and Recruiting Coordinator Chad Richards said. “It’s a transformational experience … just the way that he runs his program, the way that he treats his players, the way that he treats his staff. He loves us.” 

Richards played for Johnson from 1994 to 1997 and returned to Bethel as a coach in 2011, first as a defensive line coach and now offensive line. 

Johnson, a 1979 Bethel graduate, inherited a Royals team in 1989 that had won two games all season the year before. Despite going 3-6-1 his inaugural year, the turnaround was so distinct that he was voted MIAC Coach of the Year by his peers. Since then, the program has competed for MIAC titles and Division III playoff berths year in and year out. 

Another player impacted by Johnson was fifth-year senior quarterback George Bolt, who helped spark the offense after their sluggish 1-2 start to the season, throwing for 1,146 yards in his six games as the starter.

Fifth-year quarterback George Bolt prepares to receive the snap as Bethel drives downfield. Bolt completed seven of 13 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown in the win that advanced the Royals to their third consecutive MIAC Championship game. “We’ve been in a good spot of building and getting better as we go,” Bolt said. “So I don’t think next week anything’s different.” | Photo by Devanie Andre

“We were good, but I think we had to learn to be good,” Bolt, who has worked with Johnson all five years of his college career, said. “Sometimes that 1-2 record can be a wake-up call for like, how we need to work, and [it’s] kind of a humility check.” 

Since he started as a coach, Johnson’s success has been as evident off the field as it has been on it. His philosophy of creating well-rounded, Godly men has run deep throughout his program for more than three decades. 

“He’s trying to build great football players but also great men,” Bolt said. “He’ll talk about how [these lessons] matter for you as a husband, as a father.”

Former players both young and old approached the open microphone to share stories and lessons learned from Johnson. Sitting alongside his wife Katie, son Cornell and twin daughters Maddie and Katie while his four grandchildren ran around the bleachers, Johnson laughed and cried and cherished the presence of his loved ones.

“I’m just so blessed,” Johnson said. “My heart is full.”

“We’re free men. Let’s not be shy.” – Steve Johnson, Head Football Coach

Many stories could be traced to one of Johnson’s favorite themes, derived from Proverbs 13:20:“Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm.” Johnson takes it further, emphasizing the freedom that is found when one finds company in the wise. 

“We’re free men. Let’s not be shy,” Johnson would say repeatedly. 

1996 Bethel graduate Joe Johnson even presented Johnson with the self-created “Player’s Choice Lifetime Achievement Award,” which Joe called “one of a kind.” He received plenty of laughs when he admitted it was the “only one of its kind.” 

After a nationwide search at the season’s conclusion for a new coach, next year’s post-game huddle will look a bit different. For now, the team is focused on the upcoming week – attempting to win its first MIAC championship since 2013, a fitting send-off for a career that has not quite ended. 

Next week the MIAC championship will take place at Royals stadium as Bethel takes on the Gustavus Adolphus Gusties. The Gusties finished their regular season with a 6-3 record, including a 4-0 record against Northwoods division opponents. The Royals beat the Gusties earlier this year by a score of 37-28 on a last-minute Micah Niewald touchdown reception.

“Hey,” Johnson said to conclude his speech. “Let’s play for a championship. Just for fun.”

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About the Contributor
Aiden Penner, Staff Reporter
Aiden Penner, 19, is a freshman journalism major. His favorite activities are snatching every rebound in pick-up basketball, driving the combine during harvest on his farm and researching obscure statistics on Baseball-Reference. His biggest flex is that he met Carl Azuz. [email protected] | 507.621.4619

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