For the 12th consecutive season, Tim Johnk will lead a group of young men from an Omaha Catholic high school onto the football field.
There’s just one difference this year. It’s never been this Omaha Catholic high school.
Johnk helmed the Omaha Gross Catholic Cougars before making the switch to Creighton Preparatory. Creighton Prep hired Johnk in the spring of 2017 to replace outgoing head coach Andy Yost, who accepted a position coaching running backs at Concordia University.
“It was purely a professional decision for me,” Johnk said. “This type of opportunity doesn’t come around very often.”
Johnk won his 100th game as a head coach in 2016, a feat he says is bittersweet, considering that it came in his final season at Gross. Ultimately, he was drawn from his long-time home by the tradition of Creighton Prep. The move is also a step up in class, from B to A, which Johnk says presents more of a management challenge than a schematic one.
But don’t take that to mean the traditionally run-first head coach isn’t making some changes to the playbook. Under Chris Nizzi and Andy Yost, the Junior Jays had shown a prolific passing attack in their pistol spread offense.
“You’ll see some similarities to what they have done in the past,” Johnk said, “but you’re going to see a little more traditional, I-formation, under-the-center stuff too.” To some long-time Junior Jays fans, that run-first mentality will hearken back to a golden age of Prep football.
For 39 years, Tom Jaworski, the state’s all-time winningest coach, led the Junior Jays to playoff berth after playoff berth — 32 in total. Nine times, Jaworski’s Junior Jays hoisted the state championship trophy and six times they finished runner-up. The ground game was a hallmark of the Jaworski era.
Before Jaworski, Don Leahy served 20 seasons as Creighton Prep’s head coach. Leahy became a legend of the Omaha sports community in his own right, serving as Athletics Director at both Creighton University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Now, Johnk takes over as the third head coach at Creighton Prep in the last four years. It’s a recent run that flies in the face of Creighton Prep’s history.
Johnk would like to restore stability to the Prep sideline.
“That’s my long-term plan. I’m not leaving Omaha. I told them that when I applied and interviewed for the job,” he said. “Having the unsettled waters a little bit hasn’t helped this program.”
Though Creighton Prep hasn’t missed the Class A state playoffs since 1994, it hasn’t won a state championship since 2004. Its last appearance in the championship game came in 2014, resulting in a 41-0 drubbing at the hands of Omaha North.
“This community and Prep are hungry for them to be relevant consistently again,” Johnk said, “in terms of state championships.”
Johnk enters having brought a Class B state championship to Omaha Gross in 2012, the school’s only football title in its history. A 1983 runner-up finish was Gross’s only other appearance in the state title game.
Johnk marks having his son play quarterback on a title-winning team as a career highlight.
In 2017, his quarterback situation is hardly settled. Johnk inherits a team that must replace graduated senior quarterback, AJ Hubner, who led Class A in passing last season. In early practices, the battle has been competitive. Johnk expects one to emerge over the final two scrimmages of the summer.
“I’m not a two-platoon quarterback guy, so when we decide on somebody, we’re going to decide on somebody.”
Whoever the starter, there’s no break-in period. The Junior Jays open with a rivalry game at Omaha Westside on August 25. The importance of that first game is not lost on Johnk.
“We haven’t beaten Westside at Westside since 2008,” he said. “It’s been a rallying cry for us all summer long in terms of motivation.”
Keeping players motivated, for Johnk, is a matter of trust.
“Once you build that relationship with them and they’ve got a trust, they’ll run through a brick wall for you,” he said.
For the first time in 11 years, Johnk has to convince an entirely new group of players that the brick wall can indeed be run through. His legacy, and longevity, might just depend on it.