"It was the second game of our third season, and in came a thunderstorm," Johnson recalled. "We won 6-0. I don't remember much about the game, but I do remember that on the bus ride home the kids thought they had just won the Super Bowl."
Soon, it was on to Randallstown for Johnson's first head coaching position. After six successful years at Randallstown, Johnson moved to Chesapeake (Baltimore County), where he took a struggling program to the playoffs twice. Johnson left Chesapeake to come to Carroll County, where he built a strong program over the course of nine seasons at Liberty High. His impact was felt almost immediately, as the Lions improved from 1-9 in Johnson's first year to 8-2 in his third campaign. The Lions came close to making the state playoffs twice.
"In those days, you had to win your region to get to the playoffs," said Johnson of the then 32-team playoff field that has since been expanded to 64. "It's funny, but I actually had some teams that were as good as the (title-winning) Randallstown team that didn't even make the playoffs."
It wasn't until he came to the brand-new Winters Mill High in 2002 that Johnson found his way back to the postseason. The Falcons reached the playoffs in 2005, their third varsity season, and repeated the following fall.
"Coming to Winters Mill had a lot to do with who I worked with," Johnson said. "Courtney Vaughn (Winters Mill girls' lacrosse coach) and I taught (physical education) together at Liberty, and we became good friends. The idea was to come in and start from scratch, and we did an unbelievable amount of work that first year. There was a lot of self-imposed pressure to do things right, and nearly every coach that came to Winters Mill was very successful."
While he has built strong programs at several different schools, Johnson remains motivated by the opportunity to impact the lives of his players.
"There are two things I really like about coaching," Johnson said. "Football is like chess, except that all of the pieces move. That's the technical aspect of the game, which is mentally challenging. And I really enjoy coaching at the high school level. The kids change so much from ninth grade to senior year, and it's great to watch them grow up and mature."
A Healthy Rivalry
For nine years, Wilson and Johnson have been in the same town. But Westminster and Winters Mill didn't start playing football until 2005. While Westminster has won six of the seven previous meetings, most of the games have been close and hard-fought. The rivalry is high-spirited, but the schools have been civil opponents. And the coaches like it that way.
"I knew Brad before he got the job at Westminster, and we're friends," Johnson said. "The fact that we like each other helps, because you have coaches who are modeling good behavior to their players and fans. Plus, the kids from both schools know each other. It's a community-based rivalry. Beyond this community, it's not that big of a deal. But it does matter here, and that's a neat thing. It's something for people to be passionate about."
The rivalry resumes on Oct. 12, when the Owls make the short trip to Winters Mill. A full-throated capacity crowd will greet the teams, and the winner will take a huge step toward a playoff berth.
But it won't be the biggest game in the coaching careers of Brad Wilson and Ken Johnson. They've already taken their teams to state championship games, and their dedication to others has made a difference at their schools and in their communities.