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Assistant Johnson named interim Vista Ridge football coach
Huffman, fired Friday, endorses hire
Vista Ridge turned to longtime assistant Les Johnson in an effort to retain continuity for its football program in the aftermath of coach Dean Huffman's firing late last week.
Sure enough, things continued just as they had in the past.
Asked for a reaction to the Wolves' No. 2 ranking in 3A according to the Denver Post's statewide rankings that were released early Monday, Johnson offered a quick response.
"Just second?" Johnson said, before pausing. "I look at rankings as being opinions, I think we rank up there. I think that's probably right, 1 or 2. We're there. Still there."
For a team that brimmed with public confidence as it burst onto the scene last season, Johnson seems a fitting representative. And he certainly brings familiarity with the program.
The New Orleans native worked alongside Huffman for six years, first at Skyview Middle School and then at Vista Ridge when it opened four years ago. Johnson was the defensive coordinator last year while Huffman ran the offense. The Wolves stormed to a 10-3 record and a semifinal appearance in their first full varsity season.
When Huffman was unexpectedly removed Friday, the assistants nominated Johnson as the one to take over on an interim basis this season. He was the only candidate to interview before a hastily assembled committee on Monday morning and was announced as the new coach at 1 p.m. -- about two hours before the official start of practice.
"They came together united and said this is our guy," said Vista Ridge principal Bruce Grose, who limited the search to members of last year's coaching staff.
Huffman's firing brought instant reaction from some supporters of the program. An online petition to have Huffman reinstated was created Friday night and had 317 signatures as of 3 p.m. Monday.
Huffman, who learned of Johnson's hiring late in the afternoon Monday, was supportive of his former assistant head coach.
"I think that's a great choice," said Huffman, who has tried unsuccessfully to land an assistant position over the weekend but is now facing his first fall without football since he was a child. "One hundred percent I endorse the whole staff. The team's going to win state without question."
Johnson said the surprising timing and nature of Huffman's removal -- no specific incidents were cited -- caught the assistants as off guard as anyone else.
"We were all in shock," he said. "After the decision was made and we found out, we said 'What do we do next? How do we move forward and how do we support the kids?'"
Johnson, who was an NCAA Division I defensive back at Southwest Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette), does not foresee wholesale changes to the team's approach. He will remain the defensive coordinator and Jonathan Vrabec will replace Huffman as offensive coordinator.
"We have a system," said Johnson, a defense contractor at Schriever Air Force base. "Granted, there's going to be new play-callers, but our system has worked for us in the past and we're going to stick with it.
"The timing of the situation was unexpected. I'm sure there's going to be a hiccup or two, but for the most part everything is going to continue to stay in place."
TALKING POINTS... more on the coaching situation at Vista Ridge
Principal Bruce Grose on the quick search for an interim replacement: "We opened it up to anybody off of last year's assistant staff that was coming back so we could keep the continuity of the program going as much as possible."
Interim coach Les Johnson on his overall thoughts of the recent developments: "It is a weird situation, but we've come together as a staff. The entire football staff was there backing the administration and the kids are ready to go."
Johnson on replacing Dean Huffman, whom he worked under for six years: "It is strange because we were together so long. I came up through the ranks in his system. I learned a lot from coach Huffman. He's taught me a lot and taught me how to run a program and put a system like we have in place. So I owe a lot to him. The team owes a lot to him as well as the school. ... It was going to be me or another coach (replacing Huffman), so I'm glad it was me."
Johnson on the players' reaction to the coaching change: "I didn't know what to expect from the players, but they've been on point with what they need to get done. In my opinion, they are extremely motivated now to succeed. ... They know me, they know how I coach. They respect me and I respect them, so I think it's a win-win situation."
Johnson on the expectations for the program and himself, having never been a head coach and stepping into a unique situation with a team built to win, and win now: "It's a lot of pressure, just like any experienced head coach would have. I don't think the pressure is any different. Being a coordinator I felt the same pressure as any coach because I was so closely there with them. The pressure's the pressure, it's just the nature of the beast."
Huffman on his prospects for finding a job this season: I don't know a lot of coaches down here because I came up through the middle school and don't have the varsity background. And truthfully, if you don't have your positions filled by today shame on you. There's just no spots. I'm probably going to be out, but I can't hardly stand it.
TURNOVER IN DISTRICT 49
Vista Ridge isn't the only District 49 school to see recent turnover in the athletic department, as all three district high schools enter this year with a new athletic director and football coach. Some of the moves were nearly as last minute as the Wolves' football coaching situation. New athletic director Randy Hinson of Estes Park hasn't yet arrived in Falcon.
Here's a list of the newcomers, with those they are replacing in parenthesis:
SCHOOL ATHLETIC DIRECTOR FOOTBALL COACH
Falcon Randy Hinson (Tim Hill) Trevor Hudson (Jason Catron)
Sand Creek Autumn Sereno (Tracie Cormaney) Rod Baker (Ryan Leaming)
Vista Ridge Michael Aragon/Marla Lowes (Bruce Grose) Les Johnson* (Dean Huffman)
* Named interim coach