After Being Named DIII National Coach of the Year, Head Football Coach Steve Johnson Reflects on 34 Seasons at Bethel

Over 34 seasons, Head Football Coach Steve Johnson ’79 has built Bethel’s program into a perennial winner. But more importantly, he’s forged a culture that prioritizes a team comprised of “happy-hearted tough guys” who love the Lord, love football, and love each other—all so they can grow together. Johnson was recognized for the 2022 season and three-plus decades of success by being named American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Division III national coach of the year.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

February 10, 2023 | 9:30 a.m.

Steve Johnson ’79

Along with being the 2022 American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Division III national coach of the year, Head Football Coach Steve Johnson ’79 has been named AFCA’s Region Five coach of the year three times,’s West Region coach of the year three times, and MIAC coach of the year six times—along with many other accolades. His team is grateful to play for such an accomplished coach. “We respect Coach J day to day as if he's the coach of the year every year,” says defensive back Devin Williams ’26. “We know how great of a coach he is.” Photo courtesy of AFCA.

Just after Bethel Head Football Coach Steve Johnson ’79 was named the 2022 American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Division III national coach of the year, he offered some words of wisdom for his fellow coaches—words that reflect how Johnson leads his team. “Our job is to love these guys like we’re their dad,” Johnson said, choking up during his acceptance speech. “We need father figures all over, and we need us to be them. And then we need to train them. And the way we do that is to love them and to ask a lot out of them. And then love them more.”

For 34 years, Johnson has built the Bethel football program into a powerhouse—not just on the field, but through a vibrant culture that shapes young men. Along with recruiting talented players, Johnson builds his teams around men who will be “happy-hearted tough guys,” a description for the type of father and grandfather Johnson strives to be—and the type of men, husbands, and fathers he hopes his players will be. “What we’re trying to attract is a bunch of guys who love the Lord, love football, and love each other,” Johnson says. “There’s a lot of power in that, but there’s also a lot of joy in that.”

Head Football Coach Steve Johnson ’79

Along with a career .693 win percentage on the field, Head Football Coach Steve Johnson ’79 is proud of his players' success in the classroom. He urges his players to take the passion they exude at practice and in lifting to the classroom. “If you guys love practice, I need you to love class. Go there with the same attitude,” he tells his players. It’s paid off, as 99 players have received academic all-conference honors since 2010.

The team is thrilled that Johnson received the award—the most prestigious in his career. After hearing the news, quarterback Jaran Roste '21, GS'24 gave Johnson a big hug and told him that he loves him and is proud of him. “He has put in decades of work as a coach, shaping young players' lives and showing them how to live as children of God,” Roste says. “That is what makes him so deserving of this award—he was never afraid to be vulnerable with his players, sharing his struggles and his journey with the Lord.” Offensive lineman Travis Sinclair ’22 described Johnson as a coach who shows players love and holds them to high standards because he cares deeply about seeing them grow as men. “Coach J has created a culture within Bethel football that is different than anything you will see across the country,” he says. “It is a lot of soft-hearted, tough suckers who love each other and love to play football for each other. No other team will play as hard, as long as we do because of the passion and love we have for each other, and that all is attributed to Coach J.”

To Johnson, the award reflects the program’s success during his 34 seasons at Bethel. Johnson grew up in Chicago and played defensive end at Bethel. When he returned to Bethel in 1989, he made his mark early, leading the team to a 3-6-1 record his first year, earning conference coach of the year honors for the improvement. By 1996, the team went 9-1 and Johnson received his first regional ACFA coach of the year award. The team has won five MIAC titles, reached the NCAA playoffs 11 times since 2000, and hasn’t finished with a losing record in 28 seasons. The 2022 Royals went 10-3, reaching the NCAA playoff quarterfinals for the fifth time. The season brought Johnson’s career win total to 244—the most among active DIII coaches and 15th all-time. Along with the national AFCA award, Johnson also won his third regional coach of the year award in 2022.

Head Football Coach Steve Johnson ’79

Offensive lineman Travis Sinclair ’22 says Head Football Coach Steve Johnson ’79 is very deserving of being named the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) Division III national coach of the year. “He cares a lot about football and winning, but he cares a whole lot more about seeing his players grow as men,” Sinclair says. “I think he does that by loving on us and challenging us to high standards.”

The 2022 Royals entered the season with optimism. With extended eligibility after COVID-19, 28 of the 30 most experienced players returned for the season, including Roste, Bethel’s all-time leader in most passing categories. But on the fourth play of the season, Roste dislocated his non-throwing elbow. The team lost its next game and had a bye week to mull over the challenges. “Football’s a lot like life,” Johnson says. “Stuff’s just like it ought to be, but then it doesn’t work out. You can fold or you can stay in the fight. Our guys just stayed together.” Defensive back Devin Williams ’26 recalled Johnson’s inspirational speeches before games, where he reminded his team to play in the moment. “Whenever something doesn't go our way he says ‘get to what's next,’” Williams says. “He doesn't dwell on mistakes and recognizes that if he allows his players to, we will take ourselves off of our game.” Assistant Coach Chad Richards '98 credits Johnson for leading his team through injuries and adversity to big wins, including a 28-24 win over rival St. Johns and two playoff victories. “We battled injuries all year, and despite those, we had several significant wins over nationally elite teams,” he says. “Our guys didn't flinch and that is a result of Coach J's leadership.”

To Johnson, the team showed its character during an exhausting—but thrilling—playoff run that took the team to Chicago, Oregon, and Texas over three weeks. When the team’s Thanksgiving flight to Oregon was delayed multiple times, Johnson admits he grew frustrated and tired, but he laughs remembering how his team took it in stride. “I have to say that the kids handled some of the goofiness and some of the pressure better than me, and I love that,” he says. Johnson was also proud that freshmen like Williams, running back David Geebli '26, and offensive lineman Isaiah Ward ‘26 stepped up to play key roles in the playoffs. “I really attribute that to our guys,” Johnson says. “We don’t have a hierarchy—seniors or stars. It’s just a bunch of guys that care about what we’re doing and love each other. That’s probably my proudest thing.” The Royals lost 41-28 in the quarterfinals to defending champions Mary Hardin-Baylor, but the Royals played as a unit and dominated the first three quarters, only giving up a lead late in the game. “It’s more heartbreaking that it comes to an end because you’re having this unbelievable experience with a bunch of guys that you love,” Johnson says. “That’s harder than losing a game.”

“He cares deeply that our players walk away from their time with Bethel Football having been encouraged and empowered into the type of man God is calling them to be. It aligns perfectly with what Bethel is all about!”

— Offensive Coordinator A.J. Parnell '05
While Johnson is grateful to receive AFCA’s national DIII coach of the year award, it’s hard for him to see it as an individual award. In his acceptance speech, he credited his staff, players, and wife, Susan. And he was thankful for the support and community at Bethel. “I feel like I’ve gotten more than I’ve given,” he said. To Offensive Coordinator A.J. Parnell '05, the award recognizes everything Johnson and his family have given to the Bethel community. He commends Johnson for how he’s built the program, and especially for how he’s emphasized developing the hearts of players. “He cares deeply that our players walk away from their time with Bethel Football having been encouraged and empowered into the type of man God is calling them to be,” Parnell says. “It aligns perfectly with what Bethel is all about!” Richards credits Johnson for building the team culture around three pillars: gratefulness, toughness, and devotion. “This is mostly seen in the way our guys love each other, love this game, and love the Lord,” he says. “It might not seem like love and football go hand in hand but that is what makes this program unique.”

While February isn’t traditionally known for DIII college football, the team is preparing for the 2023 season. Johnson and his staff are busy recruiting, while his current players are putting in reps in the weight room. When they gather for practices in April, it will be a season of change as players like Roste and Sinclair leave the team, but many experienced players are returning. While each past team helps propel the program forward, every season brings new players and new challenges. Johnson simply urges players to do the right thing, show up on time, and do their jobs. “Winning takes care of itself,” he says. Looking ahead, he never speculates on whether his teams will be good. However, he knows they’ll be a tough team that loves one another and plays hard. “We’re going to compete,” he promises.
Head Football Coach Steve Johnson ’79

Head Football Coach Steve Johnson ’79 admits there’s a paradox at the core of Bethel football. They show love and joy off the field, but on the field, Johnson’s players strive to be a tough, physical team that opponents hate to play. “We’re going to be the nicest guys you’ve ever met, but on Saturday we’re going to play the game right,” Johnson says.

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