This Billy the Kid could really shoot
Now wearing a star as sheriff of Ashtabula County, Johnson was a star at St. John
By KARL PEARSON
Fifth of a series...
There are many persons in positions of responsibility who subscribe to the theory that if they surround themselves with good people, they have a very good chance of being successful at whatever they try.
Probably one of the strong advocates of that philosophy is Ashtabula County Sheriff Bill Johnson. In his 16 years as the top man at the sheriff's department and 31 total years in the department, it has been reinforced to him on nearly a daily basis how true that credo is.
"I feel you're only as good as what surrounds you," he said. "I've got a great bunch of guys working with me."
Even before he got into law enforcement, though, Johnson realized how important it was to have people he could trust around. It was that way when he worked on the docks on the lake shore in Ashtabula. It was that way spent six years in the National Guard.
That philosophy first began to take root when he was a standout basketball at St. John High School. It came from Roland "Smokey" Cinciarelli for his sophomore year and, more importantly, Don Cannell for all of his four years with the Heralds, particularly his junior and senior seasons at the varsity level. By the time he graduated in 1968, Johnson was one of the finest players the Heralds ever produced on the court.
As if that philosophy needed any more enhancement, Johnson went on to a three-year career at Kent State University-Ashtabula Campus in the days when branch campus basketball was at its zenith. Playing one season for Don Gill and two more for Ed Armstrong, he was one of the key components of the Vikings' drive to a share of the Kent State Regional Campus League championship in 1973, clinched with a dramatic 69-68 victory at Kent State-Tuscarawas Campus.
At St. John, he was surrounded not only be highly regarded coaches, but great teammates like Denny Berrier, John Wheelock, Lou DiDonato and Dominic Iarocci. He also was confronted by top-drawer coaches like Conneaut's Andy Garcia, Geneva's Bill Koval, Ashtabula's Gene Gephart and Armstrong at Harbor and great players like Ashtabula's Bill Kaydo, Conneaut's Ron Richards and Scott Humphrey and Geneva's Gary Kreilach, Steve McHugh and Larry Cumpston.
When he got to KSU-Ashtabula, Johnson joined forces with Kaydo, Richards, Wheelock and Harbor product Al Goodwin, as well as Pymatuning Valley's Ned Roach and Geneva's Al Landphair.
"Going back to my playing days, I was blessed with nothing but great leaders who were not just interested in teaching the game of basketball, but teaching you how to become a great person," the 59-year-old Johnson said. "I wouldn't change anything about that time, no matter what.
"They were all probably a bigger part of me being where I'm at than anything I've done myself. I still believe you're only as good as what you surround yourself with and with who you surround yourself."
Putting it all another way, it is often said one is only as good as the company they keep. Johnson finds himself in good company again. He'll be joining many of the coaches and players already mentioned in the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame as he is one of 14 who will be inducted March 29 at the Conneaut Human Resources Center.
"This is really an honor," he said. "To be among players I played with and against and coaches I played for and against is amazing. I think they made me a better player and a better person."
To hear his old coaches, there is no doubt Johnson deserves to be in their company.
"Without a doubt, Bill was one of the best players I ever coached," Cannell, who entered the Hall of Fame in 2008, said. "He could score, he could handle the ball and he was a very good defensive player.
"Billy was a competitor. He was a real team player, too. He would do whatever he could to help the team."
Cannell also admire what Johnson has achieved off the cour.
"I'm proud of the adult Bill has become, too," he said. "He has done such a good job as the sheriff."
Armstrong, who also entered the Hall of Fame last year, seconded Cannell's emotions.
"Bill was the best long-range shooter I ever coached," he said. "He made shots from professional 3-point range, only we didn't have the 3-point line then.
"People always talk about Bill's shooting, but he was a heckuva defensive player, too. He hated to lose, too.
"Bill is an awfully good person," Armstrong said. "He's one of the best."
Cannell noted that he is aware of one of Armstrong's happiest moments.
"I know Ed felt good when he got Bill on his side at Kent," Cannell said with a chuckle.
The youngest of the four children of the late Melvin and Rose (Tulino) Johnson, Johnson grew up on Vineland Avenue in Ashtabula Township. His brother, Richard, still lives in Ashtabula, as does the younger of his two sisters, Arlene, who has returned to town after 30 years in California. His older sister, Melvena Beebe, resides in Jefferson.
Johnson and the neighborhood kids took turns playing basketball at their various driveway courts or creating their own temporary playing fields.
"Everybody had a hoop," he said. "We mowed fields until we wore out the mowers. We used to play all day until we were called in for supper."
Actually, Johnson probably started playing baseball and football before he began playing basketball.
"I didn't know how to play basketball," he said. "My dad was the custodian at Mount Carmel School and I used to go over with him. One day, probably when I was in about the fourth grade, I went into the gym and found some basketballs. I asked Mr. Campbell, one of the teachers, I don't remember his first name and Joe Simko if I could play with one.
"They showed me a couple shots and how to practice those shots. I kept coming back and practicing them."
By the time he was in the sixth grade at Mount Carmel, Johnson joined the team that was coached by Simko, who remained his coach through the eighth grade.
"We won the parochial school championship in town when I was in the eighth grade," Johnson said. "I was the point guard. I had the license to shoot, too.
"Mr. Simko would show you what to do. If you were doing something wrong, he'd stop you and show you how to do it right. He'd always have you working on your weaknesses. Any part of the game that you needed to work on, he'd have you concentrate on that."
Johnson developed a real passion for observing the game, too.
"I've always been an unbelievable Boston Celtics fan," he said. "I loved watching John Havlicek, Larry Siegfried and Dave Cowens when I was growing up. Even today, I'm a Celtics fan."
His freshman year at St. John was Johnson's first encounter with Cannell.
"Coach Cannell started showing us different aspects of the game," he said. "He still made it a lot of fun, but we had more set plays, defenses, presses and screens. It was more detailed.
"Coach Cannell was really dedicated to the sport. He believed in hard work and working together. He was big on the defensive end. I don't think anybody enjoyed defense, but he got you to understand how important defense was. He always wanted you to make sure you won your matchup."
The Heralds were aware of Cannell's military background.
"He didn't hesitate to yell at you," Johnson said. "He'd bring you over, sit you down and get his point across.
"He didn't believe in anybody being selfish. He wanted you to listen and learn. He made sure his point was well taken and carried out."
Cannell knew he had a special talent in Johnson.
"When I saw Billy for the first time, I said, ‘We're gonna win some games with this kid,'" the coach said.
Johnson always appreciated that his coaches, who also included Paul Kopko and Gene Pushic, weren't afraid to get out and mix it up with their players."
"They'd get out there and play with us," Johnson said. "We'd play until they shut the lights off."
By the time his sophomore year arrived, Johnson had made enough of an impression that he split time between Cannell's JV squad and the varsity, then coached by Cinciarelli.
"I had the reward of splitting time," he said. "I'd probably play a quarter or two of JV ball, then come off the bench for two or three quarters in the varsity game.
"But I would rather have played four quarters of JV ball. Sophomores usually didn't get much time if you played varsity."
Johnson did get some amount of varsity time as a sophomore, linking up with players like Berrier and Mike Madonna.
The Heralds may have been aware of Cannell's military bearing, but that paled next to Cinciarelli, another old serviceman who headed back to the military after Johnson's sophomore year.
"He would scream at you," Johnson said. "He definitely had a military style. When you got called out of a game, you almost went over and saluted."
The issue of playing time at the varsity level was no longer in play for Johnson by his junior year as Cannell took over as the head coach. The youngster was ready to go through his own battles, playing against teams and coaches he had heard about for years.
"When we went up against schools like Geneva, Conneaut, Ashtabula and Madison, it really meant something because they were kind of above us," Johnson said. "As a little kid, guys like Tom Booth at Geneva and Tom Ritari and Tom Naylor at Conneaut had been my idols. Those teams wanted to show us they could beat us and we wanted to show them we could beat them. You did that almost every Friday and Saturday night.
"I was amazed at the talent level and the coaching that those schools still had. It was something going up against coaches like Al Bailey and Bill Koval at Geneva, Andy Garcia at Conneaut and Gene Gephart at Ashtabula. Al Bailey used to drive me crazy with his slowdown game."
But St. John was blessed with some pretty good talent, too. As a junior, Johnson teamed up with fine players like Berrier, DiDonato and Iarocci. That talent was good enough to beat a Conneaut team coached by Garcia and featuring Richards, another long-range bomber.
"We were pretty proud that we beat some of those teams," Johnson said. "All the Harbor games meant a lot because a lot of the kids from both schools were from the same neighborhoods. We split with Harbor my junior year and never lost to them again. We were still friends off the court, but we had some battles on the court."
Cannell depended upon the skills of his long bombers.
"Billy and (Berrier) were cousins," he said. "They were great shooters. I remember that game against Conneaut. We were looking for ways to stop those guys, especially Richards. I wondered if we would ever cool him off."
As a senior, he was joined by classmate Jim Bodnar and juniors Wheelock, Joe Petronio and Pat Kilker in the starting lineup. They saved the best for last.
"My senior year was the best," Johnson said. "I felt like we were in control of our own destiny. I think we were mature enough to realize that if we played up to our capabilities, we could win.
"We were a very well-balanced team. We averaged between 50 and 60 points a game."
And there's a sense it could have been even better.
"The only thing I wish, with the kind of talent we always had, was if we'd had the 3-point line, we could have been even more competitive," Johnson said. "We had excellent shooters with Denny, Wheelock and Lou DiDonato (not to mention himself)."
But, like so many athletes, some of the losses and disappointments are the most lingering for Johnson.
"We got beat by Lutheran East, 55-54, in the second game of the sectional tournament," he said. "They went on and won the state championship. John Wheelock played with a broken finger. I was so upset because I realized my St. John career was over."
His final home game for the Heralds might have been considered a highlight because Johnson set a single-game scoring record with 43 points. But that game ended in a 78-74 double-overtime loss to Maplewood.
"I was unconscious that night," he said. "I even hit a 75-foot set shot at the buzzer that hit nothing but net, but it didn't count.
"(Setting the record) was the only reason I felt pretty good about the game. But if I could have, I would have given up all 43 of those points for a win.
"I hated to lose," Johnson said. "I took losses to heart. If we lost a game, I would just as soon come back a day later, or even an hour later, and play the game again."
There was a victory that meant a lot to Johnson and also resonated with Cannell, even though Johnson admits he didn't have his best game.
"There was only one game the last two years that I didn't score in double figures, and that was against Conneaut," he said. "But we won the game. After the game, Coach Cannell told me he was sorry that my streak had been broken. But he still praised me in the newspaper for my defensive skills and my ballhandling and that I was still the key reason we won the game."
"Billy had that streak of double-figures games and I told him I was sorry that streak was broken," Cannell said. "But I was also proud of the way he'd played defensively and how he'd handled the ball."
Coming out of St. John, Johnson had some college basketball offers from four-year schools like Ohio Wesleyan and Edinboro, plus another interesting junior-college offer.
"I had a tryout at Lakeland when (future Cleveland Cavaliers coach) Don Delaney was the coach," he said.
But several things directed Johnson to KSU-Ashtabula.
"The decision wasn't that difficult," he said. "There were financial reasons. I had been working as a dispatcher at the sheriff's department ever since I was in high school. I was working full-time down at the docks and making good money, too."
Then a family crisis struck.
"My dad died suddenly when I was 20 and left my mom alone," Johnson said.
Besides, going to school and playing at KSU-Ashtabula tied him up with several old foes like Harbor graduate Al Goodwin, Richards and another fine Conneaut graduate, John Colson, PV's Roach and another area product, Jim Hughes.
"My first year there, I played for Don Gill," Johnson said. "We won a lot of games."
But things really got going when Armstrong took over in Johnson's second year with the Vikings.
"He was a special coach," Johnson said. "He not only taught us different Xs and Os, but he'd actually get out there and play with us. He not only taught us the schemes, but it was like he was out on the court with us.
"Ed was a very excitable guy. When he was mad, he let you know it. He'd get beet red."
Johnson felt he and his teammates had a real stake in their own fates and a lot of freedom.
"I think the players felt they were in control," he said. "We felt like we controlled our own destiny. We always felt like we could win, as long as we executed. At Kent, if we didn't win, we felt we didn't play well."
By that time, Wheelock, Kaydo and Landphair had joined the Vikings. Armstrong molded them into a unit that lost only five games by the time Johnson's third year rolled around. Clearly, he was one of the ring leaders.
"Bill sure could shoot, but he made a lot of great defensive plays, too," Armstrong said. "I remember when we were playing KSU-Salem, we were down by four points with six seconds left. He got fouled and made both free throws. Then he stole their inbounds pass, scored a layup, got fouled on the play and made the free throw to win the game. He stole a lot of passes."
Armstrong was proud of the Vikings' guard play.
"Bill and Ned Roach made quite a pair," he said. "They were like the original Batman and Robin."
Indeed, Johnson and Roach are still fast friends. That dynamic duo, along with a crew of just eight other players, pulled off the ultimate magic act in the final game of the 1972-73 season at KSU-Tuscarawas. Because of odd class loads, Kaydo and Wheelock weren't available for that game.
"I remember we went down to (Tuscarawas) right away, 18-2," Johnson said. "They were huge, had a long bench and we only had eight guys. I got in foul trouble. I told (Roach) it looked like we were in for a long night. But we got hot and came back to take a 39-30 lead at halftime.
"But by halftime, I was exhausted, and we were always in great shape. When we were warming up for the second half, I went over to Ned and told him how tired I was and he said he didn't feel like he had anything left, either."
Eventually, the Tuscarawas Kubs grabbed the lead back late in the second half. But the Vikings fought back one last time, using a press to good advantage. Ray Sheets, a PV grad, came off the bench to force a turnover that gave them back the ball. That led to a possession which Colson converted with a corner jumper with just 13 seconds left.
"Ed said, ‘Let's press,' and it worked," Johnson said.
There was one last scare.
"We were told to make sure we were on our man," Johnson said. "Al Landphair lost his guy. We all left our man and went running at him to block his view and he missed the shot."
That secured a 69-68 victory.
"Looking back, we probably had no business winning that game," Johnson, who finished it with a game-high 29 points, said. "Winning the last one is always a good thing, especially when it's for the championship."
When he entered KSU-Ashtabula, Johnson's goal was to become a teacher and coach. He was close to that goal, preparing for student teaching, but he never quite finished his degree.
"I wanted to teach and coach," he said. "I was a physical education major and psychology minor."
Instead, "I went into the National Guard for two years at Fort Sam Houston in Texas as a medic," he said. "Then I came back to work on the docks from 1976-79 where I had since I was a kid, then switched over to the A&B Dock running the hulett there until 1982. Then I became a deputy sheriff in 1982."
Johnson also became a family man in 1973, marrying the former Connie Jewell, who is a surgical nurse at Ashtabula County Medical Center. They are the parents of two daughters, Nicole St. Angelo, 24, and Kelsey, 19, who has followed in her father's footsteps as a student at KSU-Ashtabula.
"The three most humbling moments of my life are being married for 36 years and having two wonderful daughters, becoming the sheriff of the county and now this award," Johnson said with a big smile.
"I wouldn't change my life for anything," Johnson said. "The only thing I wish is my dad was around to see what has happened over the years. My mom died 20 years after my dad. They were such a big part of all of it."
The lessons of basketball, and sports in general, still ring true.
"Basketball has helped me play a lot of roles," Johnson said. "I think it gave me goals, it helped me develop a good attitude and the ability to work with other people. I know I'm not going to please everybody, but I think most people appreciate what's been done.
"I still believe it's important as a goal to get good people to surround you and to put yourself in the right surroundings. That's something you should be able to take pride in."
There is only one real objective remaining.
"My goal is, when people see me after my career is over, and they see me on the street, they can say he was a pretty good guy who worked hard and did a good job," Johnson said.