By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Featured photo: Former SU football quarterback Dustin Johnson (No. 16). SU Athletics photo
Delaware was an unknown recruiting ground for SU Head Football Coach Sherman Wood just a few years into his current position. It was not until a local SU football fan enticed Wood to travel across Maryland’s border to take in a Delaware high school football game.
It was Delmar vs. Sussex Central on a Friday night. Wood distinctly remembers the packed stadium for the game. The man accompanying Wood wanted his attention drawn to the Delmar quarterback on the field.
“It was electrifying,” Wood said. “The game was unbelievable. I think it ended up being 28-27, and this guy Dustin Johnson ended up running in for the winning touchdown.”
Johnson immediately had an impact on Wood. The Salisbury coach ended up making one of his first ever in-home visits to try and draw the prospect to the maroon & gold.
Aiding in Wood’s effort was Johnson’s affinity and skill in baseball. At the time, SU Baseball Coach and SU football Offensive Coordinator Doug Fleetwood formed a tandem with Wood to bring Johnson to Salisbury as a dual-athlete.
Johnson says that he was really impressed by the in-home visit, especially since Wood brought an SU admissions director to aid in swaying the then-recruit. He says that it was something he had not seen before, and it showed how much Wood valued the quarterback.
From there, the story is history. Johnson decided to commit to Salisbury. While he began on the diamond, his love for the gridiron drew him closer to Sea Gull Stadium. He started at quarterback in his first football game as a freshman.
“He was a baller,” Wood said. “I don’t think I’d receive any argument about this. Dustin Johnson played a tremendous role in turning the program around from where it used to be. He was that key recruit.”
As the SU football program has succeeded and grown in time since Johnson left, the Delmar, Md. native will now try to help another NCAA Division III football program around at William Paterson University. The former Sea Gull was named the head football coach of the Pioneers just a few weeks ago after five seasons as the Stevenson University defensive coordinator.
Johnson takes over the position from former WPU head coach Jerry Flora who compiled a 33-67 overall record over 10 seasons. While the football program has some success in the past, their last winning season came in 1993 (8-4).
That challenge does not faze Johnson, saying that he is excited for the new opportunity. It is his first ever head coaching position.
Plenty of experience has led Johnson to this point in his career. The former quarterback aided Stevenson in the start of their program in 2011, spending the first two seasons as a defensive backs coach and a special teams coordinator.
He then was promoted to the defensive coordinator position in 2013, which cumulated in the program’s first conference title in 2016.
“When he was named defensive coordinator at Stevenson, I thought that was fast for his age, but it was the situation,” Wood said. “It kind of reminded me of myself, being at the right place at the right time. Obviously, they had a great couple of years under his leadership.”
His leadership provided SU’s offense with very productive seasons from 2002-2005. The two-time Sea Gull captain holds several program records as the second-leading rusher and sixth-ranked passer in program history.
As a freshman, Johnson led all of Division III in quarterback rushing yards, leading to his naming as the Atlantic Central Football Conference (ACFC) Rookie of the Year. Losing only five games in his career, Johnson was also picked as second-team All-ACFC three times.
“He did it all,” Wood said. “More importantly, he was well-liked by everyone. What you saw on the field wasn’t what you saw off the field. He was this beast on the field, but off the field he walked in like a breath of fresh air.”
“He never was big-headed. I mean he never was a bragger or a talker, even though he could have been based on his accolades. He wasn’t that kind of guy. He always wanted to learn.”
That career on the field for SU led to a chance on sidelines working with Wood after college. Johnson joined the Sea Gulls coaching staff for six seasons, coaching the running backs and defensive backs in separate stints.
During that time Johnson found his home on the defensive side of the football. The former quarterback worked under long-time SU Defensive Coordinator Rob Disbennett.
Johnson says that he always was interested in the defensive side of the football. As a former quarterback, Johnson says that his time reading defenses definitely aided in his progression into his defensive coaching roles. Working under Disbennett, he was afforded the opportunity to study for his later opportunities.
From there, the Salisbury graduate continued his time coaching on the defensive side of the football. Wood says many of Johnson’s best qualities come off the field.
“I saw that he had a great repour with kids,” Wood said. “I mean kids just loved him. He could talk with the best of them. He could joke with the best of them, yet they had respect for him as a coach.”
Wood remembers Johnson as someone never too proud to do anything and always involved in community service. There were days at practice when Johnson would set up or take down equipment without being asked about it, contributing as much as possible.
Johnson’s journey has led him through the Mid-Atlantic now nearly back where he started. WPU also plays in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) which Salisbury joined at the beginning of the 2015 season. The next time the two coaches meet might be during the 2018 regular season.
One thing the former Sea Gull quarterback remembers from his recruiting was Wood’s clear love and devotion to the program, noting Wood having graduated from SU. It’s something that he aims to replicate when he is out on the recruiting trail in the future.
Entering his 20th season at the helm of SU Football in 2018, Wood is excited to see what Johnson will bring to WPU. His advice for the first-year collegiate head coach is simple.
“I mentioned to him to do it your way,” Wood said. “Don’t hesitate right now. Don’t worry about what this new staff member says or this person says. Do what you feel in your heart is gonna turn this program around.”