PENNSAUKEN – This figures to be a season of transition for the Bishop Eustace Prep football team. And A.J. Johnson is the man tasked with holding things together.
Johnson has been given the tag of interim head coach this season, having taken over the program from Rob Cormier.
In a move that surprised many, Cormier was let go in late July, apparently following a verbal altercation with a parent during an off-season workout session.
Johnson took over the program in early August, meaning he has gotten off to a late start compared to other coaches.
He’s had to adapt quickly.
“The first week I was really dumbfounded because I wasn’t expecting this,” said Johnson, who has previously served a volunteer assistant on Cormier’s staff since 2008. “I was expecting to come back as an assistant coach – not the head coach.”
Having said that, however, Johnson seems confident he can handle the assignment. He’s a football lifer, who has worked as a coach at a number of different schools over a 35-year career.
“At some of the programs I worked at, I was in charge of running the practices and making sure everything went smoothly,” he said. “Everything is going smoothly.”
Until now, the highest level he has achieved is a coordinator position.
Many of the players were close to Cormier, who had spent the previous 10 seasons as the head coach at Eustace, building a 46-56 record.
“It was a bit of a shock,” said senior quarterback Patrick Dunleavy. “We thought things were going well with him, and him being let go shocked all of us.”
They have been caught in the middle of the transition, but they think having known Johnson as an assistant coach will make things a little easier.
“I think he’s a good coach and a good motivator,” said Dunleavy. “He brings energy to our team. He knows a lot of football because he’s been around it his whole life.”
Dunleavy has only known Johnson for a year, since he transferred into Eustace from St. Augustine.
Johnson coached the defensive line, which makes him better known to senior Andrew Klitchko, a lineman who recorded 78 tackles with five sacks last season.
“It was an obstacle at first,” said Klitchko when asked about the quick turn of events. “But everyone is adapting and it’s going well. For me it wasn’t that hard of a change because I’m used to him coaching me every day.”
Johnson thinks the players have adapted to the change.
“I think the kids have reacted well to what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re trying to run it like a small college program where everything is situated. We want to make them accountable for everything – even just running on the field.”
The Crusaders are coming off a tough 2-8 season under Cormier, and it was a difficult year for everyone concerned.
As a federal law enforcement agent, Cormier took a job promotion that moved him for a home base in Philadelphia to Washington, D. C.
The change in locations and the added assignments meant that Cormier was not available for numerous practices, as well as four games.
Johnson thinks Cormier’s absences had an impact.
“The kids respond to a head coach totally different from how they do to an assistant coach,” Johnson said. “When it comes to organization and discipline, the kids look to the head coach.
“When coach Rob transferred to D.C. last year he was away a lot.”
Cormier has since resigned his former post and now runs his own security company.
Now that Johnson has the job, he expects to run a team that thrives on fundamentals.
“We expect to have an old-fashioned team, three yards and a cloud of dust,” he said. “We’re going to try to run the ball as much as we can.
“That’s going to be our signature. If we can run the ball and throw when we want to, we could be pretty good.”