Knights put wrestling program in hands of veteran coach Frank Johnson

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Forest Grove High wrestling coach Frank Johnson (left) discusses strategy with junior Alan Blood before a 152-pound match at the Don York Invitational at Cleveland.After 12 seasons as the leader of the Forest Grove High wrestling program, it’s time for Frank Johnson to move on.

A longtime fixture in the Forest Grove wrestling community — first as an athlete and then as a coach — Johnson has been named wrestling coach at Warner Pacific College.

Though Johnson already has begun his duties with the college, he will remain the Vikings’ coach through the end of this season.

“I feel good,” Johnson says. “It’s going to be just really busy, but it’s a good kind of busy, because it’s all wrestling.”

Warner Pacific offered men’s wrestling decades ago but discontinued the program in 1975. The sport’s reinstatement, which the school announced in late October, bucks a trend both nationally and locally of colleges. Both Oregon and Portland State have dismantled their wrestling programs in the past six years.

When Johnson heard about the program’s reinstatement, he called his wife, Tammy, a longtime teacher at Forest Grove High, to share the good news. She told him he should apply, as Tammy had been praying for that kind of opportunity for Johnson since he stepped away from the Pacific University wrestling program in 2002.

At Warner Pacific, Johnson will coach both the Knights men’s and women’s teams — the ladies will belong to the Women’s College Wrestling Association. Both will start competing in the 2014-2015 season.

“It was obvious during the interview process that Frank is committed to building champions in the classroom, in the community, in competition and in Christ,” Warner Pacific athletic director Jamie Joss said in a press release announcing Johnson’s hiring. “Frank has a daunting task of recruiting men’s and women’s programs over the next six months, but we are confident (that) his connections in the Pacific Northwest and experience in building a women’s wrestling program will allow him to build the championship-caliber programs we aspire to.”

The move to Warner Pacific means Johnson is coaching a team outside of Forest Grove for the first time since 1997. His ties to the community run deep. He was an NAIA national champion for Pacific in 1990 and coached at his alma mater from 1997 to 2002. He guided eight Boxers to All-American status before taking over at the high school in the fall of 2002.

His success continued with the Vikings. Johnson has helped Forest Grove wrestlers reach the state meet podium 17 times, and he has steered four individuals to a total of six state championships — with one more tournament to go.

Johnson’s oldest son, Josh, was his first two-time state champion (2009, 2011). Jake Bennett added titles in 2011 and 2012. Johnson also led his 2011 and 2007 teams to top-12 finishes at the Class 6A state tournament.

Though Forest Grove athletic director Doug Thompson is now tasked with hiring Johnson’s successor, he found it exciting that Johnson is returning to college wrestling.

“I believe he’ll be very successful,” Thompson said. “No doubt in my mind that that program will thrive over there, and hopefully that leads to more schools bringing back wrestling.”

Thompson said he has already received a few inquiries into the head coaching position at the high school, and he expects to post it by the end of the month.

Richard Small also is thrilled to see Johnson return to college coaching. Johnson coached his son, Jon Small, at Pacific, and the elder Small credits Johnson for helping shape his son — who assisted Johnson at Forest Grove — into the person he is.

“It’s good for Frank. It’s great that he’s in the place where he needs to be,” Small says. “But I will tell you, I was thrilled that Warner Pacific made that choice, because it is the quality choice they could have made. He is the cream of the crop.”

As for Johnson, his setting is changing. The opportunity to teach and help mold young adults through his chosen vehicle — wrestling — is not.

“Wrestling is a great sport,” Johnson says. “It teaches kids all kinds of things that they need to know in life. The higher up you get in the sport and the harder it is, the more those lessons are learned.”

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