A coach saved by sports

Retiring Petaluma High girls basketball coach Doug Johnson advises his players as they run through practice drills. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)

Retiring Petaluma High girls basketball coach Doug Johnson advises his players as they run through practice drills. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)


Losing his parents as a high school student, Doug Johnson appreciated the family, friends and especially coaches who set him on a path to a good life.

Sharing his love of all things sports, Johnson has coached more than five decades. His 36th season leading the Petaluma high girls’ basketball team will be his last in the prep game.

“Sports saved me,” said Johnson, now 73. “Without sports I would not have gotten an education, been able to teach and coach and make contact with some of the most wonderful people in the world.”

See photos of Johnson here

While stepping down was a tough call, Johnson said coaching has become more challenging and he has confidence the Petaluma program will remain successful.

Gruff exterior deceiving

The sometimes gruff, blunt spoken Johnson can put off people, including opposing coaches. Yet one cannot question Johnson’s success — the most wins among active high school girls basketball coaches in California.

“The old professor is an old school, tough as nails guy. But he’s fiercely passionate of promoting his girls,” said Sonoma Valley coach Sil Coccia, soon to be the dean of the Sonoma County League girls basketball coaching ranks. “It will be a sad day when he hangs up his whistle.”

Coaching has been all Johnson wanted to do since he was a school boy in Chapmantown, a working class neighborhood surrounded by the city of Chico.

An independent streak was cultivated in Johnson’s teen years.

“Losing my parents made me grow up quick. It made me realize nothing was going to be given to me,” Johnson said.

Aunts and friends put Johnson up after his father and then mother passed away within months of each other due to illness — in Johnson’s second year of high school. Johnson supported himself working in orchards.

He still managed to play four sports, excelling at basketball and track and field.

Boxing was one of Johnson’s sports at Chico State, harnessing what he learned on schoolyards.

“If you were new to school you fought. If you had meat in your sandwich you fought,” Johnson said.

Three years his junior at Chico State was Russ Peterich, the former Montgomery high coaching great. Peterich said Johnson was a large presence on the Chico campus.

“He’s quite a guy. He’s got a real dynamic personality,” Peterich said.

To pay for college Johnson worked several jobs and needed eight years to complete his bachelor’s degree and teaching credential.

“In the group I grew up in you believed you could do anything,” Johnson said.

One job his entire career

The first teaching job Johnson took would be his last.

After traveling the length of California,Johnson accepted a position teaching physical education at Petaluma High. He retired from teaching in 2002.

Petaluma’s agricultural roots were a lure.

Johnson recalled on his first visit a gas station attracting customers by giving away tickets for a pig raffle.

“I was a farm boy. I told my wife Marie this is a place where I could live,” Johnson said. “When I got to Petaluma High, it was much like the high school I attended and I felt right at home.”

The year was 1968. Johnson first coached cross country, track and field, and junior varsity boys’ basketball. He added girls’ basketball a decade later, soon after high schools began offering girls’ varsity sports.

From the beginning Johnson’s coaching approach was direct and fair: “You give me what I think you have in you and you will never hear me complain.”

His Petaluma teams were typically very competitive as a result.

“Doug is consistent if nothing else. So the girls get repetition constantly and therefore execute pretty well,” Coccia said. “Plus, I think he’s great at knowing when to get after his players and when to encourage and provide the ‘atta girls.’ Also, with a long-term successful program come tradition and anybody putting on the purple has a legacy behind them which makes them play with more pride.”

Far more wins than losses

Only six times has a Petaluma team under Johnson finished with more losses than wins. Petaluma has made 23 North Coast Section playoff appearances and won 9 league championships with Johnson.

A highlight was reaching the state championship game in 2000. That season Johnson was named the California Interscholastic Federation Division 3 girls’ basketball coach of the year.

One final playoff run

This year’s squad is headed back to the section playoffs despite injuries and sometimes inconsistent play.

“There’s not a lot of individual glory. They do whatever it takes to win,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s desire to coach is evident in his love for players and clear expectations, Peterich said.

“We had a tendency to coach like we were coached. It really is tougher to do now,” Peterich said. “You don’t get people coaching as long as they used to.”

Johnson’s departure leaves Steve Bell at Montgomery, with 24 years, and Doug Crouse at Rincon Valley Christian, with 23 seasons, as the longest tenured girls’ basketball coaches in the Empire.

“He did some amazing things over the years,” Bell said. “It was always a pleasure going against them because we knew they would be well prepared and were always ready.”

Athletes clearly respect Johnson. He talks with students while walking the Petaluma high campus on daily visits to pick up mail and greet former colleagues.

“This community and school gave me and my family everything we have,” Johnson said.

Make no mistake Johnson remains passionate about coaching.

He is back leading the Petaluma track and field team, which has won more than two dozen boys and girls league titles under Johnson.

“I’m going to coach until I die,” Johnson said. “This is what I am.”



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