ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The moustache is graying and the familiar walk isn’t as brisk as it once was, but to define this lengthy and prosperous era of baseball at Eldorado High School, the search field can be narrowed – quickly – to one name:
“I would say to a lot of people, he’s the Godfather of coaches in New Mexico,” said rival coach Ron Murphy of Rio Rancho. “That’s the way I see him.”
Johns will not be the first New Mexican to get there, and he almost certainly won’t be the last, but the longtime Eagles skipper is on the verge of reaching a truly gigantic milestone.
The 58-year-old Johns will soon win his 500th career game.
“I don’t know who else could have done it for as long as he’s done it,” said Mike Stell, Johns’ top assistant coach and confidant, who has been with Johns for each of his 27 seasons as Eldorado’s head coach. “If I had to sum him up, he’s the hardest-working, most competitive person I’ve ever met.”
Eldorado earned wins No. 498 and 499 for Johns on Saturday when it scored a doubleheader sweep of Alamogordo.
As a result, Johns’ first opportunity at No. 500 won’t be simple. The Eagles face a stout group from visiting Cleveland on Tuesday afternoon.
It is believed that only one other man in New Mexico – the venerable John Gutierrez – has gotten to 500 baseball victories as a head coach. Gutierrez, a Hall of Famer who spent decades coaching Bloomfield and Navajo Prep, compiled a 581-262 record.
Johns stands at 499-179-3 after the two victories Saturday. But the low-key Eldorado chief, as is his nature, didn’t see the impending arrival of 500 as anything more noteworthy than the Eagles’ next outing.
“I think it lends itself to staying in the game for a long time,” said Johns of the 500-win mark. “And obviously having a great support network helps. You don’t do something like this by yourself, and we’ve had great players down through the years.”
He apprenticed under both David Williams and Danny Moon before he was promoted to the head job before the 1988 season.
Ironically, the match was almost never made. Johns was a finalist to be La Cueva’s first head coach, but that job went to Robert Salazar.
It could be easily argued that both schools got the better end of the deal.
While the Bears flourished in their own way, the Eagles’ mostly sustained excellence under Johns – including three consecutive state championships from 1999-2001, plus three other blue trophies in 1992, 1993 and 1997 – would not have been possible without his stewardship.
“He’s an outstanding coach and a great man,” said Hope Christian coach Sean Anthony, who played for Johns from 1979-81 on the freshman and JV teams. “I modeled my coaching philosophy after him.”
Johns, as much as any coach, is a stickler – a slave – for details. Anything worth doing, Stell said, repeating Johns’ belief, is worth doing right.
“Love the game, do it right, play the small ball, hustle on and off the field,” Anthony said.
Which is why Johns hasn’t spent much time reflecting on the significance of 500 wins, or what it might mean for his legacy. What coaches like Ralph Tasker and Jim Hulsman meant to boys basketball in this state, Johns has meant to baseball.
“Actually, I think most coaches would say the same thing,” said Johns, a Highland High and University of New Mexico graduate. “Whether you’ve been in it a couple of years or (a long time), you’re just getting ready for the next one. When (500) gets here, it gets here.”
Few coaches in any sport are as revered as Johns, who reached 400 victories early in the 2009 season with a win over Sandia. He got his first win against his alma mater, when kids, he admits, were a little different.
But is he different?
“They say I’ve mellowed,” said the admittedly old-school Johns. “I think I’ve just gotten a little smarter.”
“His demeanor has changed,” Stell said. “His tactics? No.”
The New Mexico Activities Association website does not list career leaders in coaching wins for baseball. So while Gutierrez is generally believed to be the only man to reach 500, there is little way of confirming this.
Rio Rancho’s Murphy, with 442 victories through Saturday, figures to arrive at the magical 500 mark eventually. But Murphy was glad to turn the spotlight on Johns, a coach who commands respect from his peers.
“He’s very hard-nosed, very disciplined, very fair,” Murphy said of Johns, a man he’s been coaching against for nearly 30 years, back to when Murphy was a JV coach at Sandia. “I look at him as one of the guys you want to learn from when you play against him.”
Eldorado hasn’t been in the state final since 2006; La Cueva and Rio Rancho have dominated the landscape locally in terms of titles over the past eight years. But the Eagles (10-1) clearly have a team built to contend this season.
Johns has four players on this team whose fathers he once coached at Eldorado.
“He carries that respect, and he’s the last of the old guard,” said Brad Schafer, who played for Johns and whose son, Tanner, is an outfielder on this year’s team. “We loved him.”
Johns was asked whether he’d be around long enough in the burnt orange to reach 600.
He gave a wary smile.
“I doubt it,” he said.