A high school football program that has won just two games over the last two seasons and tasted defeat 18 times during that same span isn’t the most attractive situation for a young coach to take over for his first head coaching job.
Unless that head coach is Chris Johnsen.
The 30-year-old Johnsen, who has paid his dues as an assistant coach at several different schools over the last decade, has been given the responsibility of taking over the downtrodden football program at Weehawken High School.
And it’s a challenge that Johnsen is accepting with open arms.
“Ever since I started coaching, I always hoped for the chance to become a head coach,” Johnsen said. “I’ve been looking forward to that opportunity all that time.”
Johnsen had served in the past as an assistant coach at Dickinson, Snyder, and Ferris in Jersey City, Emerson in Union City and for the last two years as an assistant at Queen of Peace in North Arlington.
A former football player at Marist and New Jersey City University (NJCU), Johnsen became a coach while still attending NJCU and has been working toward this goal of eventually becoming a head coach.
While some people might have shied away from taking over a program that has fallen to the lowest of depths, Johnsen has stared the challenge right in the face and is vowing to turn things around in a hurry.
“I never thought my age would be a problem,” Johnsen said. “I learned a lot over the years, what to do and what not to do. I had a lot of on-the-job training, every place I went. The hardest part was getting the kids’ attention and getting them on board with me. They all thought that football practice began in August. I had to make sure that they realized it started earlier, by getting in the weight room, by getting in condition. Once they got there, they pretty much stayed. They bought into me pretty early.”
One of the first things that Johnsen did when he got the job was bring in quality assistant coaches. His first hiring was that of Alex Vega, a former teammate at NJCU who has been involved in recent years in the highly competitive sport of sumo. Vega will serve as the team’s line coach.
But another coach that Johnsen approached to be an assistant has a pretty impressive coaching resume.
When Union City decided to merge its two schools of Emerson and Union Hill this year and turned the reins of the combined program over to former Union Hill head coach Joe Rotondi, it left Emerson’s coach, Eddie Marinez, out in the lurch and without a coaching position.
When Marinez contacted his former assistant Johnsen about the possibility of being an assistant coach, Johnsen was almost shocked.
“He called me the day after [Emerson’s] high school graduation and said that he wanted to coach,” Johnsen said. “I couldn’t believe that he wanted to coach with me.”
Marinez was a highly successful head coach at Emerson, leading the Bulldogs to the NJSIAA state playoffs in seven of his nine seasons at the helm. Getting someone with Marinez’s expertise and experience to serve on Johnsen’s staff was a major coup.
“He’s been a big-time help,” Johnsen said. “The kids all respect him and listen to anything he has to say. The kids pay attention when he speaks. He’s been a good motivation to the kids. I think he’s been one of the key things. He’s been giving me good advice.”
When a young coach takes over a new program for his first head coaching experience, it’s always helpful to have a veteran coach with head coaching experience along side for guidance. The addition of Marinez already gives Johnsen some stability in the coaching ranks.
Johnsen has guided his team through mini-strides during their early workouts. He’s trying to work on basic fundamentals, an idea that was certainly lacking over the last two seasons.
“We’re tying to make it simple, working on stances, formations,” Johnsen said. “We’re really doing the simplest things, even working on just catching the ball. That’s what we have to do right now at the start. But to the kids’ credit, they’ve been picking things up fast and learning what they have to do.”
The Indians used a sophisticated spread passing offense last year that wasn’t beneficial to the overall picture. That approach has been scrapped and under Johnsen, the Indians will become more of a straight-ahead, smash mouth brand of squad.
“We’re going to put our most talented kids back there and let them run,” Johnsen said. “That’s what we have to do.”
Johnsen said that he has been impressed with the Indians’ effort and skill level thus far.
“I’m pleasantly surprised, considering they were 1-9 the last two years,” Johnsen said. “We have some good skilled kids and the effort is there. There’s no pressure on this team, because all they can do is improve. That’s a good sign.”
Johnsen has been impressed with the play of talented athletes like Derek Strandberg, Angelo Corredor, and Steven Ramsey, kids who really want to see Weehawken take it to the next level and become winners again.
It also helps having perhaps the best athletic facility with the most picturesque backdrop in Hudson County, namely the new Weehawken Waterfront Park.
“This whole summer, we’ve been down there and it’s wonderful, with the breeze coming off the water,” Johnsen said. “We’ve seen some impressive people working out down there, like Chad Morton, Jeremy Shockey, and Ryan Grant. Our kids were actually playing Frisbee with Vince Carter.”
That list reads like an NFL Pro Bowl and NBA All-Star team.
“It’s definitely one of the perks about being down there,” Johnsen said. “The facility is tremendous.”
So all systems are go for the new coach of the Indians, who is vowing to change the culture of the school’s football program.
“We’re doing all the little things right now,” Johnsen said. “A lot of these kids didn’t know the basics. They don’t even watch the pro football game. I’ve been telling them to go home and watch certain guys on television and they can pick up some things. But the kids have been great. The administration has been great. We can all only go up from here. I took this job as a challenge.”
And it’s up to Johnsen now to make that challenge a winning reality.