A legacy of love: Bethel announces first athletics endowment to honor Steve Johnson’s impact

Over 35 years, Steve Johnson '79 transformed Bethel’s football program. But his impact extended far beyond the gridiron. While much is known about how he helped his players grow as men, Johnson also mentored his fellow coaches and greatly affected the athletics department and all of Bethel. To recognize that impact, the Steve Johnson Athletics Endowment will help generations of future athletes have life-changing experiences at Bethel.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, senior web content specialist

February 27, 2024 | 9 a.m.

Head Football Coach Steve Johnson ’79

Over the weekend, Bethel University announced the Steve Johnson Athletics Endowment to recognize former Head Football Coach Steve Johnson ’79, who retired last year. The endowment is the first of its kind for Bethel's Department of Athletics and will serve generations of future Royals.

Late during Bethel’s 31-7 win over Gustavus Adolphus in the 2023 MIAC Championship Game, Head Football Coach Steve Johnson '79 called a timeout. He huddled the entire team, started crying, and told his players he loved them. “That moment just describes him,” defensive back Matt Jung ’27 says. “He loves people more than anyone I've ever seen.”

The game marked Johnson’s 252nd win at Bethel—and his last—before he officially retired. The moment also reflects the way Johnson coached with a love for his players, a love of Christ, and a dedication to athletic excellence. And now, Johnson’s legacy at Bethel will serve student-athletes for years to come in an incredible way. Over the weekend, Bethel’s Department of Athletics surprised Johnson by announcing the Steve Johnson Athletics Endowment. Assistant Athletics Director and Head Volleyball Coach Gretchen Hunt says it’s fitting that the first athletic endowment at Bethel will bear Johnson’s name. “Just like Bethel football has launched so much in the last 35 years, it’s super appropriate that Bethel football and his legacy is what gets to launch this,” Hunt says.

A fund for the future

When Johnson announced his retirement after 35 years at Bethel, Director of Athletics Greg Peterson '92 knew Johnson didn’t want a building or field named after him. “That doesn’t reflect him,” Peterson says. But campus leaders wanted to recognize how Johnson blended on-field success and a Christ-centered culture in a transformative way. “He brought a standard of excellence in terms of competing at a really high level and doing it with a Jesus-centered culture,” Peterson says.

Retired Head Football Coach Steve Johnson ’79 and his wife, Susan

Retired Head Football Coach Steve Johnson ’79 and his wife, Susan, pose for a photo at a dinner over the weekend. Bethel donors and athletics leaders surprised the couple by announcing the Steve Johnson Athletics Endowment, the first fund of its kind at Bethel to support student-athletes.

With the Steve Johnson Athletics Endowment, athletics leaders are thanking Johnson in a way that will serve future generations of Bethel student-athletes. Hunt describes the endowment as an important, forward-looking method for funding athletics. “It gives a real direct way for alumni who’ve been impacted by our department to be really involved and to not just fill budget gaps, but to be proactive,” she says. The endowment, which is launching at $1.5 million, will help Bethel athletics build a financial infrastructure to support high-level competition for years to come. 

As invested assets, Bethel endowments pay an annual return of 4%—and annual returns will directly benefit student-athletes. Money from the endowment will support operating expenses for all of Bethel’s 18 varsity programs, providing important funding as costs continue to increase, especially as programs grow and excel. “There is a cost to competing at a high level,” Peterson says. “It’s who you schedule, how you travel, how you recruit.” Each year, the athletics department fundraises for things like trips and annual expenses. The endowment will offset that need, helping pay for travel, facility upgrades, uniforms, equipment, maintenance, and more.

In higher education, endowments are a key tool for financial stability. And as such funds grow, so does the annual return. Fundraising efforts are continuing, with goals to one day reach $10 million, which would equate to $400,000 annually to the athletics budget.

Bethel Head Football Coach Steve Johnson ’79

After Steve Johnson ’79 announced plans to retire, Bethel leaders knew they wanted to recognize his 35 seasons at Bethel in a special way. But they also knew Johnson didn't want a field or facility named for him. Instead, the Steve Johnson Athletics Endowment will recognize Johnson's legacy by serving student-athletes.

A legacy of love

To many, the endowment is the perfect way to honor Johnson’s legacy of love for his players. Countless football players—from the starters to backups who rarely played—have touted their formative experiences on the team. Former offensive lineman Travis Sinclair ’22 describes Johnson as a coach who held players to high standards because he cared 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.” Former running back Brady Bomsta ’19 admits football was life when he came to Bethel, but over time, he resonated with Johnson urging his players first to be great men, great husbands, great sons, and great brothers. “We’re going to be great for God and then football will come next,” Bomsta says.

Defensive back Devin Williams ’26 says Johnson often felt more like a friend than a football coach. When he saw players around campus, he’d stop and chat, and Johnson always expressed a genuine love for his players. “He tells you he loves you all the time,” Williams says, adding that only his parents and grandmother have told him more than Johnson.

Though Johnson has retired, current players like Williams and Jung are confident the culture he built will continue. “Even though he's leaving, not much is going to change,” Jung says. Mike McElroy was hired as Johnson’s successor and while he brings his own style of coaching, McElroy aims to continue Johnson’s legacy of transformative, faith-fueled athletics. “The call is to still be really good—that’s the hope every year,” McElroy says. “But it’s the other stuff that I want to encourage guys that what this place has been built on is going to remain solid.” 

Johnson set a standard

Johnson’s impact will also carry on across Bethel’s Department of Athletics. “He basically set the standard that we’re going to be successful, but we’re going to love players really well,” says Nick Cocalis, head men’s golf coach and assistant athletic director for engagement. Today, that blend of faith and athletic excellence is at the heart of Bethel athletics. Peterson is proud of the culture of the athletic department, as the coaches work together, collaborate, and cheer one another on—which isn’t always the case in college athletics. “They’re all rooted in the same thing: we want to be centered on Jesus,” Peterson says.

Behind the scenes, Johnson also served as a leader and mentor among Bethel’s coaches. Johnson was often the one who prayed at coaches' meetings, and had an open-door policy for coaches to use his Keurig coffee machine, which led to many connections and discussions. After taking over as head volleyball coach at 26, Hunt officed near Johnson and a bond quickly formed. “It was so fortunate that that was where I got placed,” she says. Johnson would pop into her office to invite her to lunch with him and other coaches—it was never just the guys. When Hunt endured a hard stretch after early success as a coach, she recalls many discussions with Johnson. “It was lots of hallway conversations, lots of meeting at the copy machine, lots of popping into his office hoping he was going to be there to talk,” she says.

While much has been said about Johnson’s leadership, Hunt is grateful for how he was a team player within the department. After Hunt became assistant athletics director, overseeing NCAA compliance and eligibility, Johnson always showed respect and a collaborative spirit. “We talk so much about leadership in athletics, but followership is a big piece that I think we often neglect,” Hunt says. “His deference to me and submission to my authority in those areas was an example that was set for the whole department.” 

Bethel’s front porch

In a blog post last year, Professor of History Chris Gehrz pointed out that current and retired Bethel faculty were among the first to commend Johnson when he retired—a reflection of Johnson’s influence across all over Bethel. In a world where Division I football coaches receive multimillion-dollar contacts, Gehrz argued that Johnson modeled the best of college athletics. “In Division III, college football is not just a competition where success is measured in wins and titles, but a means of whole-person education that develops the bodies, minds, and characters of young men who learn in tight-knit communities led by coaches who are committed to their players’ development as persons,” Gehrz wrote.

That focus on “whole persons” has long been a core part of Bethel. Like athletics, Bethel transformed during Johnson’s 35 years. From his first season in 1989 to his last in 2023, Peterson says Bethel transitioned from a small Bible college to a larger university with education options ranging from early college to doctoral degrees. While athletics and the football team are only a part, Peterson notes that athletics are often called “the front porch” of a university—it’s often the first thing people see. The success of the football program—or any athletic program—reflects positively on Bethel, raising the university’s visibility and reputation. That is evidenced by Johnson’s retirement, which set off a wave of media attention in the Twin Cities and across the country. Peterson says Johnson’s stature and reputation reflected the quality of Bethel as a whole.

Support Bethel student-athletes

Give to the Steve Johnson Endowment for Athletics to make a difference in the lives of Bethel student-athletes.  

How to give

  • Donate through Bethel’s online portal
  • Select "Athletics"
  • Add a note that you wish for your gift to go to the Steve Johnson Endowment for Athletics

Though retired, future athletes will continue to feel Johnson’s influence at Bethel. They’ll benefit from the endowment formed in his name, and play for coaches he mentored. Cocalis hopes that in future years, new coaches will wonder why their team receives funding from the Steve Johnson Endowment. The answer: “Because he shaped your program,” Cocalis says.

And Peterson says his fondest memories of working with Johnson are his humor and the way he always showed deep care and love. “The only person in my life who’s told me they love me more is my wife,” Peterson says. Thanks to the endowment, Johnson’s love of Bethel athletics and Bethel athletes will continue to be carried forward for generations of students.

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At Bethel University, athletics are about more than wins and losses. While playing in any of our 18 varsity teams, you’ll strive to excel on the field, and you’ll grow in a Christ-centered community.

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