IMHO: Journalism’s Loss, Soccer’s Gain

  • Longtime Lebanon High boys soccer coach Rob Johnstone was a sports writer before he took up coaching. (Valley News - Tris Wykes)

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 12/16/2016 12:05:07 AM
Modified: 12/16/2016 12:10:17 AM

It’s Rob Johnstone’s fault that you’re reading this.

Lebanon High’s boys soccer coach of the past 24 years, Johnstone has had quite the last month or so. His Raiders came within a penalty-kick tiebreaker of a rare state championship. His Granite State soccer coaching peers inducted him into their New Hampshire hall of fame; another group named him the New England coach of the year, making him eligible for national honors in January.

On top of that, Johnstone has a son (Owen) who nearly brought that soccer title home, a daughter (Sydney) studying music in college and a wife (Andrea) who’s been kind enough to let him do something he never really intended to do. Not when he completed his Middlebury College education in 1988, at least.

Sit down with Johnstone for a while, however, and you learn that he’s very much a cause-and-effect guy.

For instance: He wouldn’t have picked up any of these honors if he hadn’t tried coaching, which wouldn’t have happened had it not been suggested by a friend. Then again, that suggestion might have gone nowhere had it not coincided with Johnstone’s decision to move to Lebanon to join his father’s appliance company, which wouldn’t have happened had he not first given up a job in sports journalism.

That’s the job that the writer of this column assumed nearly 30 years ago.

“Y’know, I never have been a grass-is-greener guy,” Johnstone said last week, sitting in his darkened classroom at Windsor High School, where he teaches English. “I dragged refrigerators around for 18 years, and you hear comments like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I say, ‘I’m happy. I work with my dad, my brother. I get to be close. What do you mean?’

“So I did not get into coaching at Lebanon with, ‘OK, I want to put in a couple of years here and then move on.’ I don’t think that far ahead. I’m just content. I have been, and I am.”

Johnstone’s we’ll-deal-with-it-when-we-deal-with-it approach to life isn’t a recent occurrence. It’s an ongoing theme.

Next instance: He graduated from Middlebury with a religion degree. (And you thought Hanover High coaching counterpart Rob Grabill was the reverend around here.) It’s nothing Johnstone — who also played four years of soccer for Middlebury coaching legend David Saward — planned. Circumstance prevailed.

“It’s the frustration of those who love me: I’m never thinking 10 steps ahead,” Johnstone said. “My brother (Bruce) was an economics major; he was two years ahead of me. I said, ‘Oh, that sounds good; I’ll be an economics major.’ That lasted one semester. I didn’t like that.

“Then my brother’s roommate, who was the captain of the hockey team, he was a political science major: ‘Oh, that sounds good; I’ll be a political science major.’ That lasted one class. We had to read The Federalist Papers, and I wasn’t going to do that. Lo and behold, I stumbled into this Buddhism class … this was real, interesting stuff. The reason why I picked religion was it was history, philosophy, religion and writing all tied into one.”

Next instance: Had he not been involved in playing soccer, and had he not enjoyed the writing involved in his studies, Johnstone would never have tried journalism right out of Middlebury. As a senior, Johnstone took his love of writing to the job of sports editor at the Middlebury Campus, the school’s newspaper. Six months from graduation, Johnstone was hired by Rutland Herald sports editor Dennis Jensen and sent to the paper’s since-shuttered Southern Vermont Bureau in Springfield.

“Funny how that works,” Johnstone cracked.

Five years of covering high school sports had its joys; as a coach, Johnstone still revels in them today. (Confession time: Johnstone covers the occasional game for the Valley News so long as it doesn’t involve Lebanon or anyone the Raiders might play.)

But journalists, even those in the industry’s toy room, can become cynical and jaded — I know, hard to believe — and Johnstone didn’t want to join that fraternity. His dad (also named Bruce), who was leaving the banking industry to buy Central Supply, a Lebanon appliance company, opened a door to something different. So did Woodstock friend David Goodrow’s notice of an advertisement of a Lebanon High soccer coaching vacancy.

“I had never read the help-wanted ads in my life, ever, and here was my good friend coming down to shoot hoops at the rec center in Springfield saying, ‘Oh, did you know they were looking for a coach?’ ” Johnstone recalled. “I thought, ‘I go watch these soccer games every single day. Is that something I want to think about?’

“Now, could I have thought about that if my dad hadn’t coincidentally just purchased a business in Lebanon, New Hampshire? It was an opportunity to investigate a culture of athletics and community. And I happened to have a family tie there.”

Lest you get the wrong impression, Johnstone is capable of longer-term thinking. He just saves it for the pitch.

Want an explanation of the benefits of zonal marking? Johnstone’s your man. He’s employed single-striker attacks. He’s used the traditional 4-4-2, or something resembling it. When he got started, he’d photocopy — “probably illegally,” he said sheepishly — pages from books on soccer drills to use in the Raiders’ workouts. Now, with the internet, “I can look up, say, low pressure against a 4-5-1 and, poof, a thousand articles come up.”

Over time, however, Johnstone has realized that soccer reflects his life: Who needs a plan when you can jump in feet first?

“It’s a humbling experience,” Johnstone said. “I’m not going to lie: I was 25 years old; I played for a great college team. I thought this was going to be a piece of cake. Then, as those first days of preseason and that first year came in, it was all of a sudden, ‘How am I going to fill up two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening?’

“The one thing that’s great about soccer (is) you can always play. You don’t need to teach. In football, you sometimes have to break it down more technique-wise. (In soccer), you can roll a ball out there and play four-on-four, six-on-six, eight-on-eight. It’s fun, and it’s productive.”

By next fall, Johnstone will have invested about half his life in Lebanon High soccer. Raider players frequently advance to the college stage. They take pride in their work ethic. They represent themselves, their school, their town and their coach well. The championship remains elusive — four Lebanon teams have made finals and lost 1-0 each time during his tenure — but a 268-130-37 record and high peer regard demonstrate that Johnstone has been one of the best coaches of anything around.

Oh, that writing thing? It’s never really ended, although teaching high school English isn’t the reason.

Johnstone spent two years between jobs writing a novel, Saving the Pigeons, that he’s working toward publishing. Again, an instance: If his wife hadn’t been willing to give him the space to write, even if it challenged family finances, he’d have never completed his book. The theme of never being in a hurry strikes again, he joked.

“One of my kids in one of my English classes earlier this year — and I told my guys this after we lost to Goffstown — said, ‘Man, Mr. Johnstone, don’t you wish you had a more exciting life?’ ” he said. “I said, ‘What are you talking about? I have a great family. I like coming to school every day. I love coaching soccer; I love it. I’m not trading with anybody.’

“Man, I can’t wait for Aug. 15. Put it that way.”

Journalism’s loss. Soccer’s gain.

Greg Fennell can be reached at or 603-727-3226.
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