With just two seconds left in the game, Craig Johnston’s Carmel High football team scored a touchdown to pull within one point of archrival Pacific Grove, and the football coach decided to go for two and the win.
Johnston, the former quarterback who helped deliver Cal Poly an NCAA Division II championship in 1980, was still settling on a play in the timeout huddle when the frenzied shrieks of a ball boy grabbed his attention.
“Run Rex! Run Rex!” the boy cried out above the din of the crowd.
The boy was Johnston’s 9-year-old son Pat, and ‘Rex’ was a pass play the two soaked up while watching a televised college football game one night.
Johnston called for his team to execute Rex, and Carmel won the game and made off with the rivalry trophy as the coach was carried off the field.
“So, when do you have a ball boy at 9 years old actually have the feel for what play you run to go for two when there’s no time left?” Craig Johnston said.
But, “it worked like a charm. He was wide open. The guy was there, and everybody went crazy. I’ll never forget looking over there, this vein pulsing out of his neck and saying ‘Run Rex!’ ”
Before being introduced as the new head coach at San Luis Obispo High on Wednesday, Pat Johnston, 27, went on to have a standout three-year varsity career under his dad at Carmel, played three years as a backup quarterback at Cal Poly and has spent the past six as an assistant coach with the Mustangs.
Strictly a defensive and special teams coach at Cal Poly with a rich offensive background from his playing days, Pat Johnston has had an innate feel for the game since a young age, said Craig, who was the head coach at Carmel for 19 years.
“Pat’s going to run his own program, and he knows how to do it,” Craig Johnston said. “But I think he has a better feel than maybe other first-time coaches in all the little things it takes to run a successful program.
“I know they’re going to get their money’s worth as far as hard work. None of us know how the chips will fall on Friday night, but I do know that Pat will do anything he can to get the program where it can be.”
Pat Johnston was one of a few holdovers from Rich Ellerson’s staff when Tim Walsh took over as head coach at Cal Poly in 2009. His playing career at Cal Poly ended in 2007, and Johnson had been coaching just one season when the coaching change took place.
Originally, Johnston was tasked with more administrative duties. He was the team liason for the weight room, for athletic trainers, for publicity and marketing events, and he organized the team banquet.
Lately, Johnston was given more duties on the field, where he coached the safeties, gave individual instruction on special teams and called plays for the scout team offense, which required him to scout and chart opponents’ offensive tendencies on film.
“He taught me a lot about the game,” said former Cal Poly safety Alex Hubbard, an all-Big Sky safety in 2013. “The angles of the quarterback, what the quarterback’s looking for, how to read the quarterback and how to mess with him. He knew about that because he played quarterback. It made sense.
“I think he’ll do very well if the players buy into what he’s saying and what he’s doing because he knows exactly what he’s doing. I think he can bring SLO High back. He can bring that charisma back and fun attitude back, loving to play football.”
Pat Johnston vividly remembers Carmel’s rivalry victory where he helped call the winning play, “the old shoe game of ’95.” In part, that’s what helped stoke his desire to become a coach.
Before growing up in Carmel, he was born in San Luis Obispo during a time when Craig Johnston was an assistant coach at Cal Poly.
Growing up in a football family that also sent two brothers to the Mustangs football team has groomed Pat Johnston for this assignment with the Tigers.
Now, Johnston is making the same transition from college to high school that his father did before him, and he has first-hand knowledge how crucial everyone’s role will be, from the ball boy on up.
“That’s what I’m going to preach here,” Johnson said. “Every guy on the team is important. Every single guy on the team is important, and they need to go to practice every day knowing that. If everybody can walk off the field every day knowing that there’s a great purpose in what they’re doing, then I think we can be successful.”