Beacon honorees are those that show “leadership and excellence through athletics.” It's hard to imagine anyone who has shown more leadership and excellence through athletics, while wearing so many different hats, than 2020 South Salem High School Beacon honoree Dave Johnson. And through it all, no one could be more connected – throughout his life – with his high school. Dave Johnson is a Saxon to the core. Some would say that Johnson bleeds Columbia blue and scarlet.
Johnson graduated from South Salem in 1963. As a Saxon he was a two-year letterman in football and track and field. He also lettered in wrestling. While he was an excellent wrestler and trackster, Johnson made his mark in football. He was a one of the very first Salem Sports and Breakfast Club prep athlete honorees in 1962, he was a 1st team all-conference selection at running back as a senior, and a participant in the 1963 Shrine All-Star football game.
Planning on pursuing his education and football career at the University of Idaho, it was in the locker room after that '63 Shrine game when legendary Oregon State University head football coach Tommy Prothro offered him a full football scholarship to attend OSU. While in Corvallis he played for then OSU assistant coach Rich Brooks – later to become the long-time head coach of the Oregon Ducks. Johnson was a member of the 1965 OSU Rose Bowl team that was inducted into the Beaver Hall of Fame. Loyal to the Orange and Black, he is a proud and passionate member of Beaver Nation.
Having made his mark as a player, it was now time to do so as a coach. Johnson took his first teaching job at Lebanon High School, serving as a physical education teacher from 1967-75. He aslo served as an assistant football coach for five years with the Warriors before becoming the head coach at the age of 29 and holding that position for three years. Dave also served as an assistant wrestling coach for each of his eight years as a Warrior.
In the fall of 1975 Dave returned to South Salem where he would ultimately finish his career in education in 1998. As a Saxon he would teach PE (1975-87), lead the Saxon football program as its head coach (1975-1988), serve as an assistant wrestling coach, and lead the athletic department as its Athletics Director (1988-1998).
As a football coach, over 13 years leading the Saxon program, Dave experienced only one losing season and advanced to the semifinals of the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) state tournament three consecutive years. He also was chosen to coach Shrine all-star teams three times. As Athletics Director Dave served as the president of the Oregon Athletic Directors Association (OADA) (1995), was named as the Oregon Athletic Administrator of the Year (1998), and received the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrator Association (NIAAA) Award of Merit (1998). In 2010 he was voted into the OADA Hall of Fame.
At the end of the 1998 school year Johnson “retired”. But more accurately he “changed lanes”. From 1998-2014 he served as a voice for high school coaches, serving as the Associate Director and then the Executive Director of the Oregon Athletic Coaches Association (OACA). At the same time he served as the co-director of the prestigious Nike Football Clinic held annually in Portland, leaving that position in 2018.
In 2003 Johnson was inducted as a member of the first class into the South Salem Athletic Hall of Fame. In 2006 Dave was awarded the OACA Marv Heater Distinguished Service Award. In 2014 he was presented the Outstanding Service Award for Oregon by the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) and the OSAA. In 2015 his athletic career came full circle when, on the same field upon which he starred for the Saxons, his football jersey was retired. To this day it is the only Saxon jersey to be retired.
Johnson now lives in central Oregon with wife Bev, herself with deep connections to South Salem High having served as both a Saxon teacher and administrator. His children – Shelley, Bryan, Melissa, Brittany, and Allie – are also all graduates of South Salem and, short of his parents – Don and Audrey – he counts 2018 Beacon honoree Marv Heater – long-time Saxon teacher and football coach - as one of the greatest influences in his life.
Dave Johnson is a Saxon to the core. It's hard to imagine anyone for whom a high school meant more. But it's also hard to imagine a graduate who has meant more to his school. He has truly made South Salem proud.
“Dave hired me, mentored me, and has guided me throughout my 30+ years at SSHS. I owe him a debt of gratitude that I can never repay . Thanks Coach J.”
Steve Norris, Teacher/Coach, South Salem HS
“Dave is an outstanding supporter of interscholastic athletics. A true role model.”
Ron Richards, retired AD, McKay and McNary HS
“Coach J had a big influence on me. He was steady and strong. Most of all, he was simply a joy to play for.”
Dave Johnson was my head football coach for 3 seasons in the 1970s at Lebanon High School. I can still picture him running along the field chasing plays while shouting-out instructions during practices. His intensity and exuberance were contagious. Dave’s style was both inspirational and encouraging. I can honestly say that his influence had a permanent and positive impact on my life. I feel very fortunate to count him as a coach back then, and, a friend today.
Jeff Rex, LUHS class of 1974
I consider it a great honor to have had Dave Johnson (Coach J.) as my high school football coach. His success on the field was a direct result of the high degree of integrity and class with which he coached. Coach J. did it the right way – the best way. Over the years, I’ve listened to friends tell stories about their high school coaches – profanity tirades, dragging players by the face masks, etc. I can’t relate. It’s not what I experienced playing under Coach J. His teams were gritty, hard-nosed, disciplined, and classy. He was demanding, but never belittling. He instilled great confidence and belief in his players, and won a lot of football games. Our 1982 team’s journey from starting the year 2 - 4, and going on to play in the state semi-finals is one of my favorite memories, and a testimony to Coach Johnson’s skills as a motivator and leader.
Like so many of my teammates, my relationship with Coach J. didn’t end when I graduated. Over the years, he’s continued to be a voice of encouragement and wisdom in my life. This is my 32nd year coaching football, 21st as a head coach, and I would not have entered the teaching and coaching profession if it hadn’t been for Coach Johnson. I recall a phone conversation we had when I applied for a head coaching job back in the 1990s. I had a whole list of questions about hiring coaches, off season training, fund raising, strategy, etc. As we ended the conversation, he said to me: “Steve, we’ve talked about a lot of things that go into being a head coach, but I want you to remember one thing: if you are doing the right things for kids, sooner or later, winning takes care of itself.”
Dave Johnson spent his entire career doing the right things for kids. Not only that, he continued doing the right things for those kids even when they became grown men. What a blessing this man has been in my life and so any others.
Class of 1983