Longtime Harrodsburg coach, educator and leader Alvis Johnson dies at 76

Published 1:58 pm Monday, July 17, 2023


Contributing Writer

Alvis Johnson, who influenced countless lives from Harrodsburg to all corners of the country for more than 50 years as an educator, coach, board member and community leader, died Saturday at age 76.

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Johnson was best known locally as a successful coach at Harrodsburg High School, where his football and track and field teams regularly competed for championships during a distinguished 24-year career at the school.

However, he also made his mark in his adopted hometown as a leader in his school and his church and as a trusted resource in his community, and his impact was felt far beyond Harrodsburg through his work on state and national boards and associations.

Genie Sims, a close friend and former colleague at Harrodsburg, said Johnson was welcomed and respected in each of those venues.

“Alvis was just the kind of person that you knew the things that he had to say had some meaning behind them, and he was always truthful with you in every way possible,” said Sims, who coached and taught alongside Johnson. “He was just the kind of person that you wanted to talk to because he had an answer … and if he didn’t have an answer he’d find one for you.”

Johnson coached at Harrodsburg from 1973-97, leading the boys track and field team to four state championships, the girls track and field team to one state title and the football team to three state runner-up finishes.

He was inducted into the Dawahares/Kentucky High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Kentucky Track and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1992. He won numerous state and national coach of the year and athletic administration awards.

He asked his players to give their best, but he also gave his best for them. Terry Yeast, the former Mercer County track and field coach who was coached by Johnson and coached under him before becoming a head coach, said Johnson’s coaching style was marked by “the two ‘L’ words: love and leadership.”

“I’ve never seen anybody that could rip you to shreds and when it was over you knew it was because he loved you,” Yeast said. “And then in the next minute he would make sure that you had something to eat or that you had a ride wherever you needed to get to. Whatever it was, it was always connected to love.”

As tributes to Johnson filled social media feeds this weekend, the Kentucky Football Coaches Association asked its members to turn the lights on at high school fields across the state at 9:01 p.m. Sunday — Johnson liked to set practice and bus departure times at a minute or two past an even number — for 23 minutes to commemorate the number of years Johnson was the head football coach at Harrodsburg.

At Alvis Johnson Field, which was Harrodsburg’s football and track and field stadium and is now home to Mercer’s teams, former athletes and others from the community gathered to comfort each other and share their memories of Johnson.

“He obviously influenced me, but I’m just a small drop in the bucket,” said Spencer Tatum, who  coached and taught alongside Johnson at Harrodsburg and who is now principal at Mercer. “Whether it was coaches or players or community members, he had such a far reach. … Everybody looked to him for advice and as a father figure. It didn’t matter whether you were still coaching with him or had moved on somewhere else, he was still Coach.”

Born July 12, 1947, Johnson grew up in rural Christian County as the son of a sharecropper. He became interested in athletics when Christian County football coach Pete Rembert took an interest in him.

“We didn’t have the resources to get me back and forth to practice, so every day he’d drive 13 miles down to pick me up and 13 miles back,” Johnson said in a 2020 interview.

Johnson went on to play football at Western Kentucky University, then went back home to begin a teaching career after graduating from WKU in 1970. He intended to go to law school after a year in the classroom, but he never got there.

Instead, Johnson spent three years coaching and teaching at Christian before moving to Harrodsburg, where he was hired as the athletic director, head track and field coach and an assistant football coach.

He was named head football coach in 1975, becoming the area’s first Black head football coach.

“The superintendent called Alvis and myself in and talked about the (football) coaching position, and I said that I thought Alvis would be better because he has a way of dealing with people and dealing with kids and making them feel like he was kind of like their father,” Sims said.

Under Johnson, Harrodsburg won the Class 1A girls track and field championship in 1977 and Class 1A boys titles in 1980, 1994, 1997 and 1998. He track and field teams also were state runners-up twice and won 20 regional titles, six sectional titles and 11 conference titles, and individual athletes won more than 50 state titles.

Johnson’s football teams were Class 1A runners-up in 1988, 1996 and 1997 — sons Derrick and Dennis starred on the ’96 team and Dennis was on the ’97 team — and won seven regional titles and 12 district titles. He had a career record of 194-77.

More than 40 athletes coached by Johnson received Division I scholarships.

The track and field meet established by Johnson in 1987 that remains the area’s largest annual meet was renamed in his honor as AJ’s Heart of the Bluegrass.

“I think the best thing I ever did was rename the Heart of the Bluegrass, because so many people have things named for them after they’re gone,” Yeast said. “Everything that he did was about trying to help others and show them how to love, and to this day there are things that I do because that’s what I saw him do.”

Johnson served on the KHSAA Board of Control from 1988-95 and was the board’s president in 1991. He was elected to the National Federation of High School Athletics’ board of directors in 1992 and became that board’s first African American president in 1994.

In recent years, Johnson helped the football team at Woodford County, where Dennis Johnson is the head coach and Derrick Johnson is an assistant coach, and he and wife Rosetta watched and supported their grandsons.

A student of history, Johnson taught U.S. history, world history, law and justice and geography, and he took pride in his work in the classroom.

“He was the very same in the classroom as he was on the football field,” Sims said. “He expected you to do the work, and if you didn’t do the work you got a little extra that you had to do beyond that.”

He was a Disney’s American Teacher Award recipient in 1996.

“He was looked at as a leader in the school. He had been there for so long that he had such an impact on so many people,” Tatum added.

Johnson mentored teachers and coaches alike and became a role model for Black students.

“Because of his stature and who he was and what he did, people like me and others that look like me wanted to emulate that,” Yeast said.

After retiring from public education, Johnson spent eight years as an assistant athletic director at the University of Kentucky, then entered private business in 2006. He served on the Kentucky Board of Education from 2019-22.

“My dad taught me a long time ago that hard work will always pay off for you. He worked very hard, and he instilled in me the drive to always try to work and be competitive in whatever area you’re in,” Johnson said in 2020.

Johnson was a longtime deacon and deacon chairman at Centennial Baptist Church and was active in the local United Way agency and in other community activities.

“Any time there was something that needed to be discussed in this community, if they weren’t going to call anybody else they were going to call coach Johnson to participate,” Yeast said.

Just as he did in his professional life, Johnson gave his best effort to help others and the community as a whole succeed.

“I’ve been blessed to be in some areas where hopefully I’ve made a difference,” Johnson said in 2020.