Johnson Served as Storyteller, Guardian

January 5, 2021

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Promoting the value – and values – of school-based sports.

No statement more completely, or succinctly, explains the mission of the Michigan High School Athletic Association.

Those words were sparked in the mind of John Johnson, and also might best describe his work for the MHSAA over more than three decades – which concluded with his retirement Dec. 18.

Johnson’s official title for most of his tenure was communications director, by which he designed and delivered the message of the MHSAA’s work. A more suitable title might have been “guardian” – Johnson in 1987 joined the then 62-year-old organization and became keeper and protector of all the MHSAA had been and was becoming under its recently-hired executive director, Jack Roberts.

More than 33 years later, “JJ” has stepped away as the pioneer in his field and having impacted multiple generations of Michigan high school and middle school athletes in ways that will continue. Whether as the coiner of memorable slogans, the voice explaining the nation’s first elaborate sportsmanship effort or detailing the MHSAA’s work for its schools during tougher times, or simply as the narrator passing on some of the good stories the bubble up from every season, Johnson daily worked to keep those who follow school sports in the know.

“Being the voice, and having to be the face a lot, is something that came with the territory – somebody had to be the storyteller. And while you can be prideful about that, the important thing is still the story,” Johnson said. “I’ve said it a lot: I was the lucky guy who got the job. Because the story was there to be told, the work was there to be done.”

Thousands upon thousands of times over the years, Johnson did that work with enthusiasm and grace. Most visibly, it came in front of a TV or radio microphone, or as quoted in your local newspaper and media nationwide. He has been the drive behind the MHSAA championship games watched annually on TV and online, and the messenger via various campaigns delivering the good news of why school sports are vital for kids and communities. 

Serving as that storyteller, Johnson has never been one to tell much of his own. But there is no shortage of storytellers who have benefitted from Johnson’s wisdom and tutelage over the years – and we were enable to enlist a few to paint a more vivid picture as we recount at least a glance of what Johnson has meant to the MHSAA and its schools over these many years.


“The measure of all of us is what we leave behind. Those with whom we’ve been in contact. Those we’ve lifted up along the way. And by that measure, we are witnessing the end of a spectacular career. I’ll take away from all the exchanges, the ready smile, the encyclopedic knowledge that JJ possessed and the sense of calm within the frenzy. It was invaluable to those who popped into his world only a few times a year. John Johnson has left very large shoes in East Lansing.”

– John Keating, longtime FOX Sports Detroit anchor and host for many MHSAA Football and Basketball Finals


First and 1 of a Kind

Jack Roberts became the fourth full-time executive director of the MHSAA during the summer of 1986. He brought an emphasis on communication, and “communications director” became the first position he created in East Lansing.

Johnson in 1987 became that first communications specialist at the MHSAA, beginning a long last stop during a run in sports that Johnson began as a student at Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart, about an hour’s drive north of Lansing.

Johnson hadn’t played sports at Sacred Heart, but had taken part in just about every other way possible for a student. He was a team manager, statistician, student trainer, and picked up part-time sports writing work at the former Mt. Pleasant Daily Times. He wrote a series while still in high school on the creation of the MHSAA football playoffs, which were set to kick off in 1975, and that series was syndicated among the newspapers in the Daily Times’ chain. As a student, Johnson moved on to Michigan State University where he majored in journalism, and again he was published and syndicated by the Daily Times – this time for a series on how game officials were being trained by state associations, including the MHSAA.

That series foreshadowed the work he would take up a decade later – it closed with a piece on poor spectatorship toward officials. (Coincidentally, the collection of stories had been clipped and saved by the MHSAA executive director at the time, Vern Norris. The file found its way to Roberts, who eventually found out he had just hired the author.)

Also having served as a student assistant in the MSU sports information office, Johnson began his communications career at Albion College in 1978 as an assistant in the college relations office with responsibility for publicity for the college’s 17 athletic teams. (He didn’t graduate from MSU until 1979, but received two days off per week to get back to East Lansing for classes. He also served as a radio voice for Albion High games on the side.) Johnson moved on to brief stints in the news department with WITL Radio in Lansing and as an intern in the Office of Public Affairs at Ferris State University before landing with the Western Michigan University sports information department as an assistant director.

That led to a three-year stint as an assistant sports information director at Indiana University, where his responsibilities included serving as SID for coach Bobby Knight’s men’s basketball program. Johnson also assisted with press operations at the 1984 U.S. Olympic Basketball Trials hosted by IU. Johnson then left Indiana in January 1986 for a promotions position at Michigan Farm Bureau.

Six months later, his eventual journey to the MHSAA accelerated.

Roberts was hired during the summer of 1986, and not long after he asked MSU sports information director Nick Vista who had been his best student assistant of the past decade. The answer: John Johnson.

Johnson and Roberts met multiple times over the next many months, and Roberts made his choice.

“From the first moment I sat down with Jack Roberts, I knew I wanted to be here,” Johnson said. “The way he talked so passionately about high school sports, and the values of high school sports. … I saw the opportunity to take Jack’s vision and run with it.”

The day before the announcement of Johnson’s hire was to be made, Roberts asked Johnson to come with him to Grand Rapids to watch South Christian basketball star Matt Steigenga (later of MSU and the NBA) – but Johnson couldn’t go because his wife Suzie had gone into labor with their first of two children.

But a little more than a month later, Johnson started at the MHSAA on April 1 – and that came with plenty of jokes on its own.

Yet while Johnson had to miss that trip to Grand Rapids, he and the executive director would get plenty of car time together – to the benefit of the MHSAA’s member schools. To introduce themselves to statewide media, Roberts and Johnson did a driving tour to visit all of them, touring their offices, talking to them about MHSAA initiatives and asking how Association staff could better assist the media in its work. Those drives also allowed them to dream up together “the kinds of things that were unveiled over time,” Roberts recalled.

“We talked so much those first 15 years, we could intuit each other’s thinking the last 15 years,” added Roberts, who retired from the MHSAA in 2018. “We didn’t spend nearly as much time together, but we didn’t need to.”


“John Johnson has positively influenced so many more people than he knows and more than anyone realizes. It starts with the thousands and thousands of people who have been able to watch high school sports on the web throughout Michigan. Live-streaming of games has really come to the forefront due to the pandemic, but he was on top of this innovation nearly a decade ago when it was just in the early idea stage. He has been the person who orchestrated and led the countless schools across the state who started streaming their games in the past several years. 

“JJ has also impacted numerous student journalists who wanted to learn the craft by covering high school games. He has always been SO supportive of these aspiring broadcasters and writers and reporters, affording them the opportunities to cover high school championships on the biggest stages, and treating those students the same as their professional peers. The students got to be on the turf at Ford Field and in the postgame press rooms, even if their school's team wasn't involved in the game! All they had to do was ask for credentials, and he granted them time and time again. 

“JJ's influence also touched those of us who work for the MHSAA in a freelance fashion at various championship events. He has helped so many of us become better communicators, announcers, statisticians, and more. He was always willing to provide feedback & opportunities to learn, and he served as our leader who was always accessible morning, noon, and night. He pushed us to be our best every game, just as the athletes were trying to be their best. It's been my pleasure to work for him as a PA announcer for several years now, and I tried to be perfect every single time because I knew he was listening and because I wanted to do well for him.”

– Roger Smith, advisor for Lake Orion High School’s nationally award-winning School Broadcast Program and public address announcer for MHSAA Finals


Telling the Story

In Roberts’ eyes, a few campaigns from his and Johnson’s time together stand out most.

• Promoting the Value – and Values of High School Sports. “I came in with “School Sports – the other half of education” but that wasn’t as good,” Roberts said. … (His words) caught our brand much better.”

• Good Sports are Winners. The MHSAA launched a sportsmanship initiative a few years into their tenures that was “unparalleled” nationally, per Roberts’ description. “Before sportsmanship was an 'in thing' to talk about, John and I were talking about it.” Johnson created all of the print and broadcast materials designed to promote improving sportsmanship, and his work helped make Michigan not just the leader but a voice nationally on the topic.

• Safer Than Ever. The campaign, stretching over much of the last decade, explained that high school football – for a variety of reasons – is safer than it has ever been. Johnson worked with the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association to build the messages and promote them at a time when injury fears were regularly headlining media coverage.

“John made our ideas visible and practical. People would put them together at the league level and school district level,” Roberts said.

“To narrow (his work) down to three is unfair to him because he did a thousand things.”

And in a number of roles. Johnson started as communications director, picking up along the way responsibilities in information technology, marketing, merchandising and more. Everything from daily media questions to maintaining the MHSAA record book (and serving on the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) national record book committee) fell onto Johnson’s desk, and just about any message read at any game by a public address announcer was his work. His final years were as “all things broadcasting” as Johnson served as the MHSAA’s first director of broadcast properties – an all-encompassing title that included all-encompassing responsibilities.

The MHSAA provides video broadcasts of nearly all of its MHSAA Finals – including football and basketball with FOX Sports Detroit – and Johnson has navigated the growth of those opportunities. Same with the MHSAA Network’s audio offerings  during championship events, and his voice has been heard weekly during “This Week in High School Sports” which is aired as part of programming by more than 100 radio stations statewide.

The most significant advance under his guidance over the last two decades has been the School Broadcast Program, begun for MHSAA schools during the 2008-09 school year. The MHSAA relied on that knowledge in playing a leading role last decade in the formation of the NFHS Network – the nationwide digital home for live and on-demand high school events – and it’s not unusual for Michigan SBP schools to broadcast upwards of 500 events per week via the network.

“What people don’t necessarily know is John is the pioneer in this field,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “The way he shaped this job over the last 30 years has been extraordinary – and has become the model for the 49 other states.”


“I’m sure that with me, JJ had to do things he never had done with anyone else – I was pregnant three straight schools years. The accommodations for me, even as just a female, it was kinda crazy especially in the 1980s. But when I was pregnant, I couldn’t walk up stairs, and he always would make special concessions for me, (like to) try to find bathrooms for me. There were so many media, and there always had to be exceptions, but he always had to take special care for me, and I’m so thankful for what he did. We laugh about that stuff all the time.

“I remember too, I had a tragedy in my family one year, and I know he was busy at the Finals, but he took me (aside), sat there and cried with me and talked with me. He took time out of his way. He treated me professionally, like everyone else. But as a person, he has such a gift to connect with people.”

Jane Bos, longtime prep sports editor for the Grand Rapids Press and 2008 recipient of MHSAA Women In Sports Leadership Award


More than Scratching the Surface

The work Johnson pioneered at the MHSAA goes on. Formerly a staff of one (with help from valuable volunteers including long-time postseason assistant Walter Dell) now includes a team of employees to handle the media relations, publications, broadcasting, marketing and other messaging needs.

While making the rules for school sports remains the top priority for the MHSAA, telling the story of their importance in students’ lives comes in a close second – and Johnson has written at least the first chapters of the book.

“It needed to be done; the Association had to take bigger steps into the communications world. And thanks to Jack Roberts, it did. I was the lucky guy who landed in the chair,” Johnson said.

But again, that is simply scratching the surface. We’ll end with longtime Detroit Free Press sportswriter Mick McCabe taking a last deep dive.

I first met John Johnson in the late fall of 1977.

He was a student at Michigan State and worked in the sports information office. I was a sports writer for the Detroit Free Press, covering MSU basketball, featuring JJ’s brother, Earvin.

Well, maybe Earvin and JJ weren’t exactly blood relatives, but they were both fun to be around and each had a profound effect on my life.

No, really.

When watching the Spartans back then you knew you were watching someone special, which is why they called him Magic.

No one ever used the word magic in describing JJ, but he was young and enthusiastic and sociable while he learned the tricks of the trade under the watchful eyes of Fred Stabley Sr. and Nick Vista, the absolute best sports information directors in the country.

That is why I knew JJ would be such a good fit at Albion College, which just so happened to be looking for an SID when JJ was graduating from MSU.

JJ was exactly what Albion needed and did an excellent job and soon JJ’s career was off and running.

Somewhere along the way JJ landed at Indiana University where Bob Knight learned to tolerate JJ. If you’ve ever met Knight and understand his relationship with other human beings, you know that is like saying JJ and Knight were besties.

That was reinforced in the spring of 1984 when I spent almost two weeks in Bloomington covering the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball trials and interacted with JJ on a daily basis.

In the spring of 1987 JJ accepted a job with the Michigan High School Athletic Association. It was a job that hadn’t existed before JJ came riding into town.

Jack Roberts was in his first year as the MHSAA’s executive director and JJ was one of his first hires. He was also one of his best.

JJ was hired as the MHSAA’s first communications director. Before JJ arrived the words “communication” and “MHSAA” had never been used together in the same sentence.

If a member of the media had a question for the MHSAA chances are good it would never be answered.

That changed the minute JJ was hired. If he didn’t know the answer, he got the answer for you. And if you needed to speak with someone about a particular question, JJ got you to that person.

It wasn’t JJ’s job to do our job for us, but the thing we didn’t want was for him or someone else from the MHSAA to get in the way of us doing our job.

Not only didn’t JJ get out of the way for us, he helped us and made our jobs easier with the way he ran communications for the MHSAA.

A few weeks ago, with JJ’s imminent retirement growing closer, someone asked me to describe the worst phone call I received from JJ, one in which he was irate with something negative I had written about the MHSAA.

Certainly, he assumed, over 34 years there had to be many such phone calls.

He was genuinely surprised to learn it never happened. Not even once.

JJ knew that the media has a job to do and his job didn’t require him to complain when something negative about the MHSAA was written. I’m certain it was a lesson he learned from Stabley and Vista, who operated the same way.

As far as I know, the only times JJ ever called a member of the media after a negative story was when the reporter had the facts wrong. His call just pointed out the errors and he left out the tongue lashing.

JJ was the consummate professional in doing his job and he did it better than anyone else.

There is no way I am going to describe JJ’s job performance at the MHSAA as magical, like Earvin’s, but it was pretty darn close.

PHOTOS: (Top) MHSAA Communications Director John Johnson kneels at midcourt at The Palace of Auburn Hills in 1990 having designed the floor for that year's Basketball Finals. (2) Johnson, middle, wears the headset during a playoff production. (3) Johnson, right, coordinated media, announcing and stat-keeping among other areas during MHSAA events at the Breslin Center. (4) Johnson, far left, stands with (from left) MHSAA public address announcers Roger Smith, Erik O. Furseth, Tony Coggins and Steve Miller during a Baseball/Softball Finals weekend. (5) Johnson walks the turf at Ford Field during a Football Finals. (Photos from MHSAA archives.)

Rep Council Approves Sponsorship of New Sports, Adjusts Winter Schedule at Spring Meeting

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

May 9, 2024

The Representative Council of the Michigan High School Athletic Association took several actions during its Spring Meeting, May 5-6 in Gaylord, including approving the addition of boys volleyball and girls field hockey to the lineup of MHSAA-sponsored tournament sports beginning in 2025-26 and reorganizing the winter championship calendar to end one week earlier.

The Spring Meeting of the 19-member legislative body of the Association’s more than 1,500 member schools is generally the busiest of its sessions each year. The Council considered 28 committee proposals and dealt with a variety of eligibility rule, postseason tournament and operational issues.

After a yearlong conversation about emerging sports at MHSAA member schools, the Council approved a Volleyball Committee recommendation to begin sponsorship of boys volleyball with the 2025-26 school year. The Council also voted to begin sponsorship of girls field hockey beginning with 2025-26. Girls field hockey will be played during the Fall season, and boys volleyball during the Spring season, with the 2024-25 school year to serve as a development period as the MHSAA works with the current governing organizations for those sports. These will be the first sports added to the MHSAA’s tournament offerings since girls and boys lacrosse joined the lineup during the 2004-05 school year.

Changes to the MHSAA Winter Calendar will take effect in 2025-26 and include several adjustments to Finals schedules and practice starts that overall will lead to the winter sports season ending one week earlier – reflecting a fall survey that showed nearly 80 percent of MHSAA member schools felt the winter should be shortened. The reshaped winter sports calendar also completes competition before schools begin their spring breaks – which are being scheduled earlier than in the past – and places championships on dates that avoid potential facility conflicts.

Beginning with 2025-26, the last weekend in February will include the Team Wrestling, Bowling and Competitive Cheer Finals (with Skiing Finals remaining on the Monday of that week). The first weekend in March will include the Individual Wrestling, Boys Ice Hockey and Girls Gymnastics Finals. The Boys Basketball Finals will move to the second weekend of March with the Lower Peninsula Boys Swimming & Diving Finals, and the Girls Basketball Finals will permanently conclude the winter season during the third weekend of March. The Upper Peninsula Girls & Boys Swimming & Diving Finals will remain in mid-February. With basketball seasons ending earlier, basketball practices will be able to begin five days earlier (on a Wednesday) to keep tryouts/first practice dates from falling during Thanksgiving week.

More changes to MHSAA Tournament competition will begin in 2024-25. The Council voted to add a team championship for girls wrestling to be awarded to the school with the most success in the girls bracket of the Individual Finals. A girls individual bracket was added for the 2021-22 season, and the team championship will be awarded based on individual finishes similarly to how boys team championships were awarded before the dual format Finals were created with the 1987-88 season. Also for 2024-25, the Council approved Basketball and Soccer Committee recommendations to seed the entire District tournaments in those sports using Michigan Power Ratings (MPR) data, which previously was used to seed only the top two teams in each bracket for girls and boys basketball and girls and boys soccer.

The Council also approved a classification change in football intended to protect the state’s smallest schools sponsoring the 11-player format. Continuing a conversation from its Winter Meeting in March, the Council approved a Football Committee recommendation to cap the enrollment of Division 8 schools at 250 students, and then divide the rest of the 11-player schools evenly to determine the enrollment lines for the other seven divisions. As more small schools have switched to 8-player, larger schools have shifted into Division 8 for 11-player – and this change guarantees Division 8 schools will play only similarly-small schools during the postseason, taking effect with the 2025-26 school year.

To continue supporting schools providing teams at multiple levels despite low participation, the Council voted to allow athletes in two more sports to compete on teams at two levels on the same day. The Council approved a Bowling Committee recommendation allowing bowlers to participate in subvarsity and varsity competition on the same day, provided the events are separate – bowlers may still be listed on only one match roster and bowl for one team during each event – and also approved a Girls Lacrosse Committee recommendation to allow athletes to play in no more than five quarters in one day, with overtime an extension of the fourth quarter. At multi-team girls lacrosse tournaments where both school teams are playing, an athlete would be allowed to play in as many halves or quarters as what the school’s highest team level that day is playing.

The Council bolstered the penalty for inappropriate behavior toward game officials, approving an Officials Review Committee recommendation modifying the penalty for any coach or athlete who is ejected for spitting at, hitting, slapping, kicking, pushing or intentionally and/or aggressively physically contacting a game official at any time during that competition or after being ejected. The offending coach or athlete shall be suspended from competition for the next 14 calendar days and must complete an online sportsmanship course. The offending coach also will not be eligible to coach in the MHSAA Tournament for that sport during that season, nor be allowed to be present at the site or within sight, sound or communication of a tournament event for that team.

Here is a summary of other notable actions taken by the Representative Council at the Spring Meeting, which will take effect during the 2024-25 school year unless noted:


• The Council approved a change to the athletic-related transfer (link) rule stating that an athlete is ineligible in all sports participated in during the current or previous school year if that student has transferred to a school where a coach is employed who previously was a school employee or third-party contractor at the athlete’s former school. This change of language bolsters the regulation to include links to a coach at the new school who previously was employed in any way by the previous school.

• The Council approved a change to the football practice and competition rule to state that a school may not take part in an interscholastic scrimmage with another school until the Wednesday of the second week of practice and only if the team has conducted football practice on at least seven separate previous days. A joint practice with another school is considered a scrimmage and may not take place until those seven days of practice have been completed.  

Sports Medicine

• The Council approved a Sports Medicine Advisory Committee recommendation to require high schools to attest by each season’s established deadline that their high school sports coaches have emergency action plans specific to location which are posted, dispersed, rehearsed, discussed and documented within their practice plans.

• The Council also approved a Committee recommendation requiring MHSAA Tournament host sites to have an AED (automated external defibrillator) within visible distance of the event.


• The Council approved an Officials Review Committee recommendation requiring a set minimum number of officials required to work an event, designated by sport and level (varsity or subvarsity).

Sport Matters

BASEBALL: The Council approved a Baseball Committee recommendation requiring varsity teams to submit their pitch count information electronically by noon the day following every game(s).

BOWLING: The Council approved a Bowling Committee recommendation allowing for Regionals – Team and Singles – to be competed on consecutive days between Wednesday and Saturday of that week to increase the possibility of more bowling centers being able to host. Previously Regionals could be bowled only on Fridays and Saturdays.

COMPETITIVE CHEER: The Council approved three Competitive Cheer Committee recommendations related to stunting while also prioritizing safety. In a braced suspended forward roll pyramid, the flyer and at least one bracer will be required to have a hand-to-hand/arm connection, with one or both hands/arms of the bracer connected to one hand/arm/foot of the flyer, and with this maneuver performed only to a cradle position or in a forward suspended role without twists.

Another change will allow a backward suspended roll when it originates from the cheering surface as long as both hands of the flyer maintain continuous hand-to-hand or hand-to-arm contact with the original bases or back spot.

A third change allows during an inversion the temporary loss of contact with the flyer while transitioning to a double-based sponge with both feet of the flyer in the hands of the bases, or to a cradle or shoulder-level or below stunt.

GOLF: The Council approved a Golf Committee recommendation to form a Golf Site Selection Committee to review Regional tournament groupings and determine host schools and courses.

SOCCER: The Council approved another Soccer Committee proposal to institute a running clock during the first half of matches when the goal differential is eight or more.

SWIMMING & DIVING: The Council approved a Swimming & Diving Committee recommendation requiring all times entered for MHSAA Finals for both individual and relay swim events to be the times that are the fastest achieved in varsity competition during the current season and electronically verifiable on

TENNIS: The Council approved a Tennis Committee recommendation requiring the MHSAA to reduce the number of Regional tournaments for a season from eight to six if the number of teams participating that season is fewer than 288.

TRACK & FIELD: The Council approved a Cross Country/Track & Field Committee recommendation allowing for athletes to qualify for MHSAA Finals by reaching predetermined standards during a window beginning April 1 of that season and extending until that athlete’s Regional meet.

WRESTLING: The Council approved a Wrestling Committee recommendation to amend the penalty for a team when a wrestler competes at an ineligible weight class during a dual event. If the ineligible wrestler is discovered during the involved match, that wrestler forfeits that match and the opposing team will be awarded six team points, plus the head coach of the team with the ineligible wrestler will be assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty resulting in a one-point team score deduction. If the ineligible wrestler is discovered after the involved match, any points earned by the offending wrestler are removed from the team score, along with the point for unsportsmanlike conduct, and six points are added to the offended team’s total. In both instances, neither wrestler involved in the match in question may compete again in that dual. If the ineligible wrestler is discovered after the dual is completed, the teams have left the mat area and the scorebook has been signed by the official, the results and team score will stand.

The Council also reviewed reports on membership, with 754 senior high schools and 774 junior high/middle schools in 2023-24 plus 60 elementary schools with 6th-grader participation; cooperative programs, with 392 high school programs for 720 teams during 2023-24; eligibility advancement applications, which totaled one; the use of Educational Transfer Forms, of which there were 128; school violations, attendance at athletic director in-service workshops and Coaches Advancement Program sessions; officials’ registrations (which were up 4.8 percent from 2022-23), rules meetings attendance, and officials reports submitted for the past three sports seasons. The Association’s $14.8 million budget for the 2024-25 school year also was approved.

The Representative Council is the 19-member legislative body of the MHSAA. All but five are elected by member schools. Four members are appointed by the Council to facilitate representation of females and minorities, and the 19th position is occupied by the Superintendent of Public Instruction or designee.

The MHSAA is a private, not-for-profit corporation of voluntary membership by more than 1,500 public and private senior high schools and junior high/middle schools which exists to develop common rules for athletic eligibility and competition. No government funds or tax dollars support the MHSAA, which was the first such association nationally to not accept membership dues or tournament entry fees from schools. Member schools which enforce these rules are permitted to participate in MHSAA tournaments, which attract more than 1.4 million spectators each year.