Aiken-area football coaches weren’t surprised by Carey Johnson’s resignation as Aiken High School football coach. But many of his longtime rivals were saddened by the news that after 18 years as the Hornets’ head coach Johnson is stepping away from football.

While they were heartened to know that Johnson will remain as Aiken High’s athletic director, many said they would miss going head-to-head with him on the gridiron.

“I hate to see it,” said Al Lown, who has been the head coach at Silver Bluff High School since 1993. “He’s a great asset for Aiken County, and I think the world of him. We’ve been in fierce competitions on the field, but I’ve developed a close relationship with him.”

Longtime Midland Valley head coach Rick Knight said he’ll miss Johnson and what he instilled in his players.

“I’m kind of saddened by it. Aiken High kids always got after your behinds out there,” reflected Knight, who has been in charge of the Mustangs since 1999 and faced Johnson’s teams nine times. “They play football the way it’s supposed to be played. … Toughness and discipline. A lot of kids don’t want to be a part of that but Carey has always run a tough, hard-nosed program.”

Dan Pippin, who has had rivalries with Johnson – first at South Aiken and now North Augusta – echoed those sentiments.

“He held his kids accountable,” said the Yellow Jackets coach, who never beat Aiken in seven tries when he was the head coach of the Thoroughbreds. “He’s a great man, and it will be sad to see him not coach football. It will be a lot different.”

That was something Johnson’s peers seemed to agree about. Facing Aiken without Johnson stalking the sidelines will be hard to imagine.

“It will be different,” said South Aiken’s current coach Jeremy West. “It’s still Aiken vs. South Aiken, but he’ll be missed a lot. I enjoyed being around him.”

He made his mark

The camaraderie among coaches is clear. Johnson is a dean among the fraternity of area football coaches because of his longevity, success and character.

“I always looked up to him and how he’s successful,” West said. “I admired him because he got a lot out of his kids. He’s tough but cared about them.”

Johnson has been at Aiken since 1990, when he was an assistant and defensive coordinator.

He became head coach in 1995 and amassed a 135-88 overall record, a better than .600 winning percentage. Johnson’s teams have made the playoffs 13 times, and he guided the Hornets to back-to-back appearances in the state championship game in 1999 and 2000, making the state semifinals three other times.

“The run he’s had there is a direct reflection of Coach Johnson,” West said.

Fighting a losing battle

Johnson has had tremendous success against some of the best programs in the area and across South Carolina. He leaves with winning records against his top rivals in Aiken County.

Pippin has faced Johnson the most among active area coaches, but is only 4-10 against Aiken. Pippin said playing against such successful Hornet squads forced his teams to improve.

“He helped me a lot at South Aiken and North Augusta,” Pippin said. “I didn’t like him beating me all those times. But we tried to model ourself after Aiken. That helped us get a lot better.”

Knight said something similar. He tried to emulate the success Johnson achieved by making comparisons between Midland Valley and the elite programs in the area.

“We always wanted to get to the level of Silver Bluff and Aiken High,” Knight said. “They were the measuring stick for a long time.”

Like Pippin, Lown also has four wins against Johnson’s teams, going 4-8 over the years that included some classic battles. He said he appreciates Johnson’s decision to resign because of the immense workload that comes along with so much responsibility.

“Teaching, being a head football coach and an athletic director takes a toll,” Lown said. “It’s a loss for Aiken County.”

Although West is new to the rivalry, going just 1-2 against Aiken, he appreciates the timing of the decision.

“I hate to see him give it up, but I understand the time comes when you don’t want to do it anymore,” West said. “It’s good to call your own time to go out. That’s what all coaches want. He wasn’t pressured and went out on his own terms.”

Still a factor

Although Johnson won’t be the head coach anymore, he still figures to be a large presence in football and all of Aiken High’s varsity-level sports. He’ll continue to serve as the athletic director, a capacity that he’s done very well in during recent years. Many Hornet teams have had deep runs in the playoffs under Johnson’s guidance.

“He does a great job as athletic director,” West said. “I expect he’ll continue to do great things.”

Pippin, who’s both head football coach and athletic director at North Augusta shared, those sentiments, saying “I’m happy he’s still the athletic director,” said Pippin, who paid Johnson the ultimate compliment any coach can give. “He’s the kind of guy I’d want my son to play for.”

Pippin, Lown and Knight have been Johnson’s peers for more than a decade. West has a unique perspective and relationship with Johnson. West was a student-athlete at Wagener-Salley when he first knew of Johnson. He played against Aiken players that Johnson coached long before becoming one of the Hornets’ top rivals.

“I was a player in the county when he was a defensive coordinator and head coach,” said West, who has the distinction of coaching against him in Johnson’s final game.

South Aiken prevailed 28-21, getting a win that not only put a nice touch on a tough T-Bred season but also snapped a long skid against the Hornets. It was also West’s first win over Aiken in three tries.

“Looking back, it’s pretty special being a part of his last game,” West recalled. I’ll always appreciate what he did (after the win). There was a big crowd, and he could’ve just gone into the locker room ,but he stuck around and found me. He hit me on the back of my shoulder and told me he’s proud of me.”

Big shoes to fill

The coaches reacting to Johnson’s resignation repeated a similar refrain. They all said a big challenge awaits Johnson’s successor, trying to emulate the success he achieved over 18 years as head coach and 22 seasons with the Aiken program. And they all referenced Johnson’s footwear.

“Carey’s teams are always well coached so those are going to be big shoes to fill. It’s going to be tough.”

— Al Lown, Silver Bluff head coach

“Those are big shoes to fill. He won a lot of games, so it will be tough.”

— Dan Pippin, North Augusta head coach

“He’ll be missed a lot. Those are big shoes to fill. I enjoyed being around him. … I hope they bring in somebody who knows the importance of the rivalry, but he’ll be missed a lot.”

— Jeremy West, South Aiken head coach

“It’s an unknown quantity and will be hard to do. Whoever it is will have big shoes to fill, but he’s going to be responsible for finding the new guy.”

— Rick Knight, Midland Valley head coach

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.