Darren Johnson played quarterback at Kahuku High School. He also played point guard. He also played baseball. He can also play a pretty good ukulele, in all likelihood, coming from a musical family.
But what Johnson does now, decades into his life as a coach, isn’t something he would’ve imagined 35 years ago. This afternoon at Aloha Stadium, he’ll be coaching against his alma mater. Campbell is in the semifinal round of the Oahu Interscholastic Association Division I football playoffs against defending league champion Kahuku. When the teams met a few weeks ago, Kahuku won 45-6.
Johnson might have a few new wrinkles this time, always willing to adapt. The first-year Sabers coach chatted with Hawaii Prep World on Thursday.
Campbell football coach
HPW: Your teams have usually had balance offensively and tough-nosed defense. This year, Campbell came a long way since preseason. A lot of growth.
Johnson: You’ve got to put everything on the table. I’ve been dealt a good hand and I wouldn’t change any cards. These boys have worked hard and they’ve made great progress.
HPW: It was not an easy path. Kahuku is both your alma mater and the dominant program in the OIA, and in the OIA Blue with Campbell.
Johnson: I knew all along I would be in the same division. I didn’t take the job to look at it that way. We have our future plans to travel and be another Kahuku on this island, but the kids understand there are sacrifices along the way to become a big-time team. Keeping kids in Ewa is important because there are so many going to other schools and private schools. We want to build our own memories. That’s what happens at Kahuku, more and more kids stay home. They don’t build memories going to a private school. You don’t build memories for your community. You’re building someone else’s community.
HPW: All the years you’ve coached, then it was something less traditional with 7-on-7 and the Hukilau Cafe team. Players from different schools, traveling to the mainland to play the West Coast’s best athletes.
Johnson: I like the fact that I have helped kids all over the island. I definitely am a local fan and cheer for our local kids no matter what school they go to. You always want to see their success. Some people only want to see their community kids succeed. I want to see our community succeed. Our baseball and softball teams have success. Our basketball team is going to be really good. They have more than enough kids trying out, and not one of them is a football kid. This school has athletes for every sport, and I encourage our kids to play more than one sport. You only have high school only once. Only 5 percent make it to the next level, so you make memories for your school and your community.
HPW: One of the most fascinating things I learned this season is that Campbell didn’t have any football players on academic probation. Everyone made the grades in fourth quarter last spring. It’s like the football guys understand that it’s more stressful to get bad grades than good grades.
Johnson: Yeah, don’t add more stress. I’ve had my fair share of one-on-ones with our athletes. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be giving them the opportunity to make things right. If you don’t stay eligible, you won’t play football at Campbell. I leave a gray area. If you’re not going to class and taking care of that, then I’m not going to waste my time. But if you’re willing to put in the work, it’s worth the time.
HPW: Facing Kahuku must feel a little complicated for you, even now.
Johnson: I know where I live. I know where I was raised and played, but my goal is always to help, wherever I am. Everything is about life in general, building your memories wherever you are. I would say 50 percent of “Raider Nation” aren’t even Red Raider graduates. I’m proud of Hawaii and I want to see Polynesian athletes do well. For me, this is an ideal job. It is so worth the drive every day. The kids are so worth the time and the energy. I do Pylon (7v7) and I mix all these kids together. The friendships they build with each other is lasting. It’s priceless. You can see the respect and the love they have for each other. You see them all compete, but you see the respect they have for each other.
HPW: One of the underlying aspects of the playoffs is the change in format with fewer teams from the OIA playing in the state tournaments, including zero in the Division I state tourney instead of four. Instead of 11 or 12 or 13 games, it’s done after nine or 10 games.
Johnson: If you had a 12- or 13-game season and went deep, then you played your playoffs, you won at states and you’re playing the whole thing. Nine or 10 games, you’re right on track.
HPW: If the OIA reconsidered next year and decided to send teams to the D-I state tourney again, would you be for it or against it?
Johnson: I wouldn’t be against it. One thing I do because I have a good administration, I support their decisions. They come to us and get our thoughts and they vote on it. I’m a public-school guy. I know a lot of our ADs and a lot of our administrators and principals, so I support our admin in every way. I like that they at least ask what I feel. What’s real funny, a lot of our coaches, what’s amazing is when we have our evaluation meetings and coaches have their ideas, a lot of good ones are brought to the table. I’m hoping this year we can get our teams get back into the state tournaments instead of the three in Open Division and one in D-II. We have a lot of good coaches with good ideas.
HPW: Any last thoughts?
Johnson: The foundation in the Kahuku community is awesome. Junior Ah You being a big part of my life growing up, you look up to a man like that. He’s Mr. Aloha in that community. He’s always been around and he makes that place special. We want the same thing at Campbell and we’re going to work hard like heck to keep our kids here.