San Luis Obispo High principal Leslie O’Connor said he and his administration “cast our net far and wide” to find a new football coach who could connect with both the student athletes and the community.
Pat Johnston convinced them the best candidate wasn’t far at all.
Johnston, a former Cal Poly quarterback and defensive assistant who was born in San Luis Obispo, was introduced as the Tigers next head coach at a news conference Wednesday under light rain and the eyes of his new players.
“My dream has always been to live in San Luis Obispo,” said Johnston, who wore a white baseball hat with “SLO” emblazoned on the front in gold lettering. “I feel like everything is coming full circle for me, and I’m humbled and honored to accept the position as head football coach at San Luis Obispo High School.”
At 27 years old, this is the first head coaching job for Johnston, who spent the past six years coaching defensive backs and special teams with the Mustangs in addition to numerous administrative responsibilities.
He initially envisioned himself trying to cut a career in the college coaching ranks, but with their second daughter on the way, Johnston and his wife, Megan, opted for a more stable environment.
“There were so many horror stories from my friends who have moved every two years chasing a bigger and better job,” said Johnston, who hopes to become a certified teacher within the year. “We want what’s best for our family, so this is really exciting to put our roots here.”
The lack of head coaching experience did not dissuade athletic director Jeff Brandow from landing on Johnston, who is the son of Craig Johnston, a prolific head coach at Carmel High and himself a former Cal Poly quarterback.
“I think you can look at somebody with head coaching experience and look at the negatives during their head coaching experience,” Brandow said. “We found Pat to be a kind of diamond in a rough, where we think he’s going to be very good.”
The coaching search included a panel of 30 members from the school and community, which helped whittle the more than 60 applicants down to nine finalists.
O’Connor said “one name kept rising to the top,” and Brandow agreed.
“The first time I met Pat, I was very impressed with how humble he is and how experienced he is,” Brandow said. “He has that certain charisma that you look for in a head coach.”
Johnston said his first order of business is to assemble his coaching staff and set to work on devising a gameplan that will best utilize the talent the Tigers possess.
“I need to see them in the weight room and out running on the field before I can make a final decision on what our scheme is going to be,” he said.
Johnston knows the struggles of fitting into a different system. He was a pass-first quarterback for his father at Carmel High, throwing for more than 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns his senior year and career marks of 5,020 yards and 51 touchdowns.
After enrolling at Cal Poly in 2004, head coach Rich Ellerson and the Mustangs switched to the run-heavy triple-option attack.
“I knew that really put me out of the race, because, I can admit it, I can’t run to save my life,” Johnston said. “I never saw the field at Cal Poly, and I’m not afraid to admit that because I learned a lot.”
He made the most of his role as quarterback of the scout team, enough so that Ellerson — and eventually current head coach
Tim Walsh — kept him on staff.
When Walsh arrived in 2009, he moved Johnston to the defensive side to help him gain a new perspective.
“I absolutely think that’s the best move I could have ever made,” Johnston said. “It just made me a more well-rounded coach.”
Now, he has his own team to impart his knowledge and experience to — a team he addressed directly from his spot behind the podium Wednesday.
“I want you to know that we will enjoy long days together with smiles on our faces and the sense of purpose that comes from the hard work that needs to go into a top-notch program,” he told the players.
San Luis Obispo finished 4-6 last season, including a 1-5 mark in the PAC 7. The Tigers will return all-county second team running back Nate Greenelsh, who ran for 462 yards as a junior and 653 yards as a sophomore.
“Atascadero, Paso Robles and Arroyo Grande have done an outstanding job in the last few years,” Johnston said. “We’re going to have to do our very best to put
together a good finished product on Friday nights, and hopefully win some games.”