End of an era: Bill Johnson steps down as Norton wrestling coach after legendary run

Randy Gonzales
Special to Hays Daily News
Norton's Bill Johnson reacts after Kolton Field won the 126-pound title in the Class 3-2-1A state tournament this past season at Gross Memorial Coliseum. Johnson announced recently that he is stepping down as Norton wrestling coach to become principal at Norton’s junior high school.

Bill Johnson will be a tough act to follow as wrestling coach at Norton Community High School.

Johnson announced last month he was stepping down after 30 successful years as the Bluejays’ head coach. He has just completed his master’s degree in educational leadership at Fort Hays State University and in the fall will be principal at Norton’s junior high school and athletic director for grades 7-12.

Since he started working on his master’s degree, Johnson and his two veteran assistants thought this day was coming.

“I thought this might be near the end of my career,” Johnson said.

What a career it has been.

Johnson won 11 state titles, including a run of five straight from 2013 through 2017. His dual record was 255-77. Norton also had 49 state champions under Johnson, 25 runners-up, 20 who finished third, and 22 fourth-place finishers. This past season, Johnson sent just three to state under the Kansas State High School Activities Association’s new format due to COVID-19, but two of them, Gavin Sproul and Kolton Field, were state champions.

The Class 3-2-1A state tournament through the years has been a home away from home for the Bluejays, and for Johnson, who was an All-American at 118 pounds for Fort Hays State University, and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.

“It’s kind of a home-field advantage at Gross Memorial Coliseum,” Johnson said.

Fort Hays was not on the radar for Johnson after graduating from Flint Hills High School in Rosalia. The school did not have a wrestling program his freshman year, then started the sport midway through his sophomore year, with Johnson taking fourth at state. He followed that up with second-place finishes at the season finale as a junior and senior. Johnson then went to Oklahoma State to wrestle for one season, then laid out a year before transferring to Fort Hays. The Tigers were recruiting his brother, Mark, Flint Hills’ only state champion. Tiger coach Wayne Petterson said the program could also use Billy — as he was called then.

“A lot of great memories at Fort Hays for me,” Johnson said. “To bring my team back there was always a pride thing. I wanted them to do well. As a Fort Hays alumnus, I wanted to do well for them, and our school, too.”

Upon graduation from Fort Hays in 1989, Johnson applied for the open position at Norton, to replace the retired legendary coach Jake Durham, who won six state championships. Johnson did not get the job and coached at Kingman for two years before the Norton position opened again, and this time he got the job.

“Probably a blessing for me,” Johnson said. “Who wants to follow Jake Durham?”

Among Johnson’s memorable moments in his 30 years at Norton was having his three sons win state titles under him. He also pointed to the 2020 season, when Darius Shields won a state title after moving in with the Johnson family after his mother, Lori, was killed almost a year earlier.

Johnson thought he might have to leave Norton for an administrative position elsewhere, but soon after he completed his master’s in March, a couple positions opened up in Norton.

“It will allow me to finish out my career as a Bluejay,” Johnson said. “The exit strategy as a coach, I’ve really been contemplating it since 2018. There’s no good time to get out.

“I used to live and breathe and sleep wrestling 24-7,” he added. “In the last few years I’ve been busy getting my master’s degree and still coaching girls’ tennis. It was time to move on, I think.”

Johnson’s two longtime assistants, Tony Fiscus and Shane Miller, also will move on. Fiscus will teach and be an assistant football coach at the high school in Benkelman, Neb., while Miller accepted a job at Louisburg.

Norton native Billy Broeckelman, who wrestled for Johnson and who was his assistant for three seasons, has been named the new head coach. His brother, Nathan Broeckelman, won two state titles for the Bluejays and is head wrestling coach at Great Bend.

Johnson, 55, expects to still keep busy, perhaps even busier, as a principal and athletic director.

“I’m excited for a new challenge,” Johnson said. “I’ve taught in the same classroom for 30 years.”

Bill Johnson, left, is stepping down as Norton head wrestling coach, while Billy Broeckelman, right, will take the reins of the program as head coach after previously serving as an assistant for Johnson.