Last season for a legend

It's over.

After 44 years coaching at Petaluma High School and 36 years as the head girls basketball coach, Doug Johnson, 74, is in his final season of coaching.

"I love going to practices. I love going to games and I love my kids, but it's time to move on," Johnson said last week, confirming that this will be his final season at Petaluma.

The numbers alone are staggering. From the 1978-79 season when his first team went 10-13, his T-Girl teams won 660 games and lost 326, a winning percentage of .669, with the rest of his final season still to play. His teams have won nine league championships, including three in a row from 1995-96 through 1997-98 and four straight from 2005-06 through 2008-09. Four times his teams never lost a league game, including last season when the T-Girls were 24-5 and 14-0 against SCL teams. He has been chosen league Coach of the Year on numerous occasions and twice was North Coast Section Coach of the Year. In 2009 he received the Community Award for Service to Youth.

His 1999-2000 team did not win a league championship, but it did play its way into the state championship game with an amazing playoff run that captured the imagination and excited the entire community.

But those are numbers, important numbers to be sure, because they reflect Johnson's commitment to detail and excellence. They also reflect his intensely competitive nature. But as much as Johnson enjoys winning and hates losing, he relishes teaching, which is what coaching really is, more.

"It was not what I taught the kids about basketball, it was what I taught them about life and preparing for life," Johnson said.

Johnson was an innovator, not afraid to try new things. Occasionally his ideas would not catch on, but often they became traditions, like the Westside Relays for elementary school kids, that are still going. He formed a National Junior Basketball League in Petaluma when one of his future T-Girls was not allowed to play what was, at that time, a boys-only CYO program. Since, hundreds of grade-school-aged girls have learned basketball fundamentals while playing NJB basketball.

Johnson has, and always will be, Petaluma High School's biggest booster. "I lot of people don't understand what the school is all about," he said. "There is a tradition there that is unbelievable. I have a deep feeling for the school."

Former Petaluma High football coach Steve Ellison, who coached at Petaluma for more than 30 years, said much of that tradition was established, or at least perpetuated, by a core group of coaches like Johnson who were teachers more than coaches. Included in the group with Johnson were people like long-time baseball coach Roy Lattimore, his baseball successor Frank Wright, Bob Pawlen, Linda Jacobson and several others. "I honestly felt like I was with a group of all-star coaches," Ellison said. "Just being around them inspired me. Winning was important, but what was really important was doing what was right."

He said Johnson was "one of the most creative teachers I've ever been around.

"He is a unique individual, but in a good way," Ellison said. "He is unlike anyone I've ever met. I learned a lot from him."

Johnson taught the T-Girls not only how to play the game, but how to respect the game. "I try to teach them that they need to know the game," he explained. "That means if you are up by 30, you're not pressing, and it means that the little things are important."

Johnson has binders of letters from T-Girls thanking him for his contribution to their lives, b8t he has even more memories, and, with very little prompting, he will tell stories of games and especially players. "The thing I remember most are the kids," he said. "I remember each and every one and I can tell a story about every one of them."

Janelle Lombardi was a T-Girl, and is now a coach for Johnson. Her comments reflect the sentiments contained in the coach's letter collectio9n.

"Playing for coach Johnson was the most rewarding experience in high school as I look back on it today," she said. "As a teenage girl going through high school, basketball gave me an outlet. It gave me an escape, a place where I could let off steam and become who I am. Of course, I owe a considerable amount of that to my parents, but the other person that pushed me along to be a better player, a better coach, and a better person was Coach J. He taught me tough lessons through the sport. I learned to be a team player and what that really meant. I learned to be a leader. I learned time management and most of all, I learned that if you work hard, the payoff is worth all the blood sweat and tears it may have cost you along the way."

Now, as a coach, she said she is still learning.

"He is a unique individual that very few people understand, and he says I am one of them," she said. "While most days I feel I am on the same page as him, there are others where I feel like that young brown-eyed girl that used to stare at him during time outs thinking is this really possible? Now, today, I know it's possible as long as you have the 'want to.' His knowledge of the game is second to none. I continue to learn from him during each practice and game during the entire basketball season, and surprisingly enough, it still isn't just basketball that he teaches me."

Johnson makes special mention of the state team and the town's support and asks that any story include a thank you to all the parents and fans who have supported the T-Girls over the years.

Johnson coached almost every sport during his four decades at Petaluma High School. He was twice chosen the North Coast Section track coach of the year, and elevated the Petaluma cross country team from dormant to a North Bay League powerhouse. At one point, his cross country teams won 70 meets in succession.

"Before basketball, track and cross country were my babies," he said. "I loved coaching them."

This may be Johnson's last year of coaching, but he is not retiring to the life of a golf and leisure.

"There are a lot of things I still want to do," he said.

While coaching has been a huge part of his life, it hasn't been the most important part of his life. He reserves that for his family -#8212; wife Marie, son Jeff, daughters Jill Johnson Skoff and Diana French Johnson and his grandchildren Julia, Annie, Katrina and Nicholas.

But there is always that other family -#8212; the T-Girl family of more than a thousand when you count in all the kids he coached in high school, junior high school and National Junior Basketball.

"The kids are beautiful," he said. "They are so innocent and 100 percent honest."