Carey Johnson is no longer the head football coach at Aiken High School.
After 18 years in that capacity and more than two decades of service with Hornet football, where he served as an assistant and defensive coordinator before taking over as head coach in 1995, Johnson is stepping away. Johnson resigned as Aiken's football coach, but will remain with the school, continuing to serve as the athletic director.
Thinking it through
Speaking on Friday, Johnson said he actually resigned in February, but the decision just recently became official. That's because members of the Aiken High administration, including principal Garen Cofer, wanted Johnson to change his mind and return for a 19th season.
“In February I resigned as head football coach, but the administration gave me more time,” Johnson said of the chance he had to reconsider. “But it was the decision I wanted to make,” said Johnson, confirming that the resignation as football coach is final.
While Aiken High's administration didn't want to move on, it has begun the process of looking for Johnson's successor on the football field. The Aiken County Public School District has a listing on its employment opportunities website for a Head Varsity Football Coach at Aiken High.
That's a job posting Cofer said he didn't want to see. In spite of Johnson's move in February, the principal held out hope for Johnson to reconsider.
“The process took so long because we were waiting for him to change his mind. We hoped he would continue,” said Cofer, who was adamant that the decision to resign was entirely Johnson's, and the coach was under no pressure to leave the job in spite of a losing record the past few seasons. Cofer said his loyalty to Johnson wasn't because of the coach's impressive body of work over the duration of his tenure, but because of his position as an educator.
“Wins and losses were never a thought. Carey Johnson means too much to this school. He's about shaping young men and molding character. ... His job has never, ever been in question.”
A career of highs and lows
In his career as Hornets' head coach, Johnson amassed a 135-88 overall record, a better than .600 winning percentage. Johnson's teams have made the playoffs 13 times, and he was the defensive coordinator on Aiken's 1992 team that won a state championship.
Since taking over as head coach, Johnson guided the Hornets to back-to-back appearances in the state championship game in 1999 and 2000, making the state semifinals three other times. Since he's been at Aiken, Johnson has helped establish the Hornet football program as the measuring stick for all other area teams to compare themselves against.
Unfortunately for Johnson, his own teams have struggled to meet those lofty expectations in recent years. The Hornets are coming off a 2-9 campaign, the worst season in Johnson's time as head coach. The struggles aren't exclusive to this season as Aiken hasn't finished with a winning record since 2008, going 15-30 (.333) in the four years since. The Hornets have failed to qualify for the playoffs the past three seasons.
But Cofer reiterated that the outcome of games didn't affect Johnson's status, saying, “I'd take him back as head coach right now if he changes his mind.”
Athletic Director successes
While the football team hasn't had success, several other of Aiken's varsity-level sports have flourished under Johnson's stewardship as athletic director. The volleyball team, boys' tennis team as well as boys' and girls' basketball squads among others have all advanced deep into the playoffs in the past few years. And for each accomplishment, Johnson has been on hand to witness and commend the Hornets' student-athletes for their achievements.
“His status is grounded solid as athletic director,” Cofer said of Johnson. “As long as he'd like to be, it's a given.”
Johnson's next major task as athletic director will be to find his successor on the gridiron. Cofer said the position is open to all applicants, confirming that there could be internal candidates applying to be head coach. But he was clear the position is open for any viable applicant.
Johnson said the process will be thorough.
“We're going to open it up and interview and go from there,” Johnson said.
Getting a new head coach in place as soon as possible is ideal with spring practice not too far off and the 2013 season slated to start in four months. But Aiken won't rush, and Cofer said he'll lean on Johnson's insight in finding the right candidate.
“He will be a part of the process and interviewing,” Cofer said. “We still have an athletic director who's a football coach to help us through the process. We're not panicked. We understand the situation and will make it work.”