From 1975 to 1998 there was no more influential presence walking the halls of Harrodsburg High School than that of Alvis Johnson. The leader who served his community as a deacon, teacher, coach, athletic director and ever present friend passed away on Saturday, July 15 with his loved ones by his side.
Alvis leaves with us his wife of 49 years Rosetta Johnson, his sons Derrick and Dennis (Johnson) and for so many, a lifetime of unforgettable memories.
A celebration of life was held Sunday, July 16 at the Alvis Johnson Field, dedicated to Johnson in 1996, bringing together hundreds of his former students, athletes and those he influenced after his retirement from Harrodsburg High in 1998. The microphone was passed from person to person as speakers representing every year of Johnson’s tenure at Harrodsburg told of just how great an impact the legendary man had on their lives both as children and now in adulthood.
The final speaker of the night was his wife Rosetta. She told the story of Johnson’s departure from Christian County High School in 1974. Alvis told The Harrodsburg Herald in 2020 that at that time, he had no interest in moving to Harrodsburg. As a Western Kentucky boy through and through, and a Christian County alumnus, he hoped to make an impact on the athletes in his hometown. Rosetta said that Christian County’s coach at the time had convinced Johnson to leave the program and gain experience coaching elsewhere, after five years, Johnson would be welcomed back as the new Christian County head coach. According to Rosetta, Johnson was really sent away because Christian County’s coach wanted his son to take over the program, and he knew the position belonged to Johnson had he stayed.
“What man makes for bad, God makes for good,” said Rosetta.
In 1974 Pioneer Superintendent Forest Williamson was desperate. He called Johnson time and time again, begging that he at least come take a look at the town and see how he liked it. After being offered higher pay and the position of athletic director, Johnson finally said “okay.”
“I drove up, looked at Harrodsburg, looked at the football field, and I was pretty impressed. I still didn’t know that I wanted to come to Harrodsburg, but eventually he wore me down, so I came. He (Williamson) said, ‘just come for a year,’ so now it’s 50 years later, I’m still here so I guess it was pretty impressive,” said Johnson in a 2020 interview.
Johnson’s talent coaching on the field and track showed immediately. The Pioneers went 10-2 in his first season as head football coach. Spanning 23 years, Harrodsburg had only three losing seasons and collected 194 wins, as well as a reputation for being a hard-nosed, dominating program. Area teams rarely looked forward to the trip to Harrodsburg, it was the toughest game of most programs season. The Pioneers won 12 district titles, seven regional titles and made three state championship game appearances, including back-to-back appearances in 1996 and 1997. Johnson was voted Kentucky High School football coach of the year twice in 1991 and 1996.
Johnson is certainly one of the greatest Kentucky High School football coaches in its history, and his track and field teams were even more successful. He lead the boys track and field team to four state championships in 1980, 1994, 1997 and 1998. In 1977, Johnson coached two talented athletes in Ronda Boyd-Parks and Bobbi Jo Yeast, they went on to win a class-A team state title by themselves, earning Johnson recognition as the Kellogg Corporation National Track Coach of the year, he also received nominations in 1987 and 1992. During his time coaching Harrodsburg, Johnson was voted Kentucky’s track coach of the year eight times.
Former state championship player and coach with Danville High School, now head coach of Somerset football, Clay Clevenger spoke of Johnson’s impact on his life and career as an athlete in a Facebook post.
“I ran into Coach Johnson at a Danville-Harrodsburg basketball game that year and he was mad I didn’t have any college offers. The next day I get called out of class at DHS and Jack Harbaugh, head coach at Western Kentucky University at the time, was on the phone and invited me down for a visit,” said Clevenger.
“Coach Johnson ‘made a call’ and added me to his list of kids to help get into college. I didn’t end up at WKU, but the point of making a call made an impact! I always said if I was ever to be a head high school coach, helping kids get opportunities to further themselves would trump ‘Championships.'”
Liz Mays has worked in the Mercer County School System for several years. She told her story of Johnson’s impact Sunday evening. Despite not playing any sports at Harrodsburg, Johnson put Mays to work as his track and field “statistician” all four years of high school.
“I had so much respect for him, there was a time in my life I stumbled and made some bad decisions…and I can remember thinking ‘I wonder what coach Johnson would think of me,’ you know it hurt my heart to think that I was disappointing him,” said Mays. Many graduates of Harrodsburg share this sentiment. Johnson was a father figure to so many of his former students and athletes.
Craig Yeast was a star at Harrodsburg High School and the University of Kentucky, but the mind-set that made that capable was molded by Johnson and his wife Rosetta.
“They basically took me in, and they held me accountable and kept me on the straight and narrow. Without Coach Johnson and Mrs. Johnson, there is absolutely no way that I can stand here today and be back in this town and speak to you about how much I love that man and how much he’s done for me,” said Yeast.
Johnson’s passion for life motivated young men and women of Harrodsburg for nearly 50 years. Whether it was his faith in God and work as a deacon at Centennial Baptist Church, his long and revered career as an educator or his impact on athletics, the enthusiasm he carried at all times inspired generations of this town and countless others across the state and nation.
“As human beings, irregardless of race, this man shaped our community in so many ways, and it’s our responsibility, with the torch that’s been handed to us, that we make sure it stays that way, it gets better it gets stronger, and we celebrate his life,” said Dan Yates, former assistant coach on Johnson’s football staff.
Johnson’s visitation is scheduled from 7:01 a.m. to 1:01 p.m. Friday at Centennial Baptist Church. Weather permitting, the funeral will be held at 2:01 p.m. Friday at Alvis Johnson Field. If need be the service will be moved to Harrodsburg Baptist Church. A burial service will follow at Maple Grove Cemetery.