Pete's Point: Johnson coached dominant Tiger teams

Publisher Pete Mohs looks back on the coaching career on Pine River legend Jerry Johnson

Photo illustration, Metro Creative Graphics, Inc.

An obituary for Jerry Johnson in last week’s Echo Journal briefly mentioned that one of the loves in the life of the 82-year-old Pine River man was coaching.

But there’s much more to the story than simply the word “coaching.”

Johnson was a successful coach. His girls’ basketball teams at Pine River High School, and eventually Pine River-Backus following the consolidation of the schools in 1992, were dominant for more than a decade.

Jerry Johnson.JPG
Jerry Johnson

“I think we only lost eight games in my four years on the team,” said Dina Kangas, who played for the Tigers between 1983-1987. “Jerry and his wife (Gloria) were always there for the players. It was a good family atmosphere. He let us play, and didn’t limit what we could do.”

Johnson, who often credited the Tigers’ success to his players, had powerhouse teams in the Lake Region Conference, and also in District 24 (the previous playoff structure before sections).


“We had a great run,” Kangas recalled. “And we had some pretty good players.”

Johnson first started coaching the Tigers in 1980 while his daughter, Michelle, was a standout.

“Jerry’s teams were always tough,” said Randy Schwegel, who coached girls basketball at Backus before coming to Pine River after the consolidation. “We had some decent teams at Backus, but not at the level of Pine River. I remember one game, where we moved the ball around the zone, and won 21-20. That was about the only time I remember beating him.”

Despite compiling a 70-12 record in his first five seasons, Johnson announced his retirement from coaching after the 1984-85 season. The Tigers had won four straight Lake Region Conference titles and lost to eventual state champion Staples-Motley in the District 42 title game. But Johnson was ready to retire.

Johnson said he went to the administration a month before the 1985-86 season was to start, and discovered that they still didn’t have a head coach for a program that had finished 19-2 two straight years. Johnson, who originally said he had mixed emotions when he retired, agreed to come back to the program.

Jerry’s teams were always tough. We had some decent teams at Backus, but not at the level of Pine River.
Randy Scwegel, former Backus girls basketball coach

It was a good decision as the Tigers continued their winning ways for a program that continued to produce talented players - like Kangas, who would become one of the best players in team history. She finished with 1,771 career points and led the Tigers to the District 24 title as a senior. The three-time conference MVP later played college basketball at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where she finished as one of the top Division-II scorers.

“Four of our five starters from that season went on to play college basketball,” said Kangas, who added the players benefited from the confidence of a winning high school program.

Johnson would coach five more seasons after Kangas graduated in 1987. Harold Chitwood, a longtime coach at Backus and Pine River, was an assistant to Johnson for his final two seasons.


“We had some good players come from Backus after the consolidation, and we went to the (district) finals in 1992,” Chitwood said. “The following year, both of us were not asked to come back to coach. That was the end for Jerry. He really had a run of talent on his teams.”

Chitwood, Schwegel and Kangas all remember Johnson was a quiet leader.

“I rarely remember him being loud on the bench,” Schwegel said. “And I don’t remember him getting mad at officials or his girls.”

Johnson let his players make plenty of noise on the court during the powerhouse seasons. The Tigers never made it to state, but did compile more than 190 wins with Johnson as coach.

“I remember how hard Jerry worked,” Kangas said. “He was a teacher and a coach. He also worked part-time at Gardner Hardware (in Pine River). He was a good teacher and coach.”

Pete Mohs, publisher, may be reached at 218-855-5855 or . Follow him on Facebook.

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