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Berkeley coordinator glad to be rid of off-field issues

By Tim Haran Daily Planet Correspondent
Friday September 28, 2001

Former Mt. Tam head coach Johnson brings new system to BHS 


Each time Clarence Johnson steps onto the football turf at Berkeley High School, his sales pitch becomes a little more convincing.  

Almost immediately after arriving on campus last summer, the ’Jackets’ new varsity offensive coordinator knew he had plenty of individual talent to work with. It’s been trying to create what he didn’t see on the field – namely teamwork – which has become Johnson’s greatest challenge. 

“The biggest problem right now is that we have a lot of talented individuals but they have to learn to play as a team,” Johnson said. 

After 15 years of walking the sidelines, the former Mt. Tamalpais head coach is well aware that a successful team is built with talented players that are willing to forego individual honors if it means winning games. 

“That’s a hard sell,” Johnson said. “Especially to the kids who are used to being the star.” 

As Berkeley begins league play Friday against El Cerrito, strengthening its team togetherness may take a back seat to simply playing fundamental football. Johnson brought with him a complicated offensive playbook filled with more than 70 plays, some of which haven’t even been tested on the field yet. 

“It’s a good offense he’s teaching us,” said senior wide receiver Lee Franklin. “It’s just a matter of us learning it and executing.” 

Johnson, 43, gave up his head coaching job at Mt. Tamalpais High in Mill Valley to run Berkeley’s offense under first-year coach Matt Bissell.  

It’s been a tumultuous welcome. The ’Jackets scored just 12 points in three pre-season losses to formidable opponents Foothill, James Logan and Dos Palos.  

An entirely new coaching staff, the transfer of last year’s starting quarterback and star receiver and the graduation of the ’Jackets’ top rushing threat have all contributed to Berkeley’s early-season struggles. 

“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Johnson said. “I knew going in that there was probably a tremendous amount of potential here, but I really didn’t know everything about that potential.” 

Another varsity newcomer, Bissell, who coached Berkeley’s junior varsity team last year, said that Johnson’s experience as a head coach has helped him learn the system. He also called it unfortunate that Berkeley has matched up against such tough opponents so early in the season. 

“The offense has sputtered at times, but I don’t attribute it to Clarence necessarily,” Bissell said. “None of the kids know the offense yet and we’re teaching them on the fly against very good defenses.” 

The slow start might be attributable to players adapting to the new system. But as a coach, Johnson said it’s his responsibility to raise the “stick by which we measure athletes” to ensure that Berkeley’s individual talent isn’t wasted. 

“If we hold it higher, they’re going to rise to it,” he said. “I don’t want to say they’re underachievers, but that’s what it is. It’s underachieving and the guys will settle for whatever level the stick’s at.” 

Now that Johnson wears the hat of offensive coordinator, he steers clear of eligibility issues, parents, boosters or the other administrative duties reserved for the head coach. Johnson said that he’s spending more time on the field working with football players, and that’s why he began coaching in the first place. 

“Even though we’ve lost our first three games, I’m having a great time because I’m back interacting with the kids,” he said. 

It helps that Johnson enjoys what he’s doing. After all, he spends more than 30 hours a week at practice, on the sidelines at games or in the office watching films. “It’s still not as bad as when I was head coach,” he said. 

Before he entered the coaching ranks for a Pop Warner team more than a decade ago, Johnson played as a defensive back for his high school in Baton Rouge, La. He finished his senior year in the Bay Area and attended San Francisco State University, where he ran track. 

Johnson readily admits that his competitive side dictates that he has to win football games. A league championship is a top goal, as is a trip to the playoffs. But to achieve those goals, Johnson knows he has to teach his players the importance of working together.  

“If you sell it, the team really becomes that much more important and that much better,” Johnson said. “If you’re good enough as an individual, you’ll shine even more when the team works together.” 

A few Berkeley wins could prove that the team is buying Johnson’s pitch.