As hard as it is for him to part ways with the young men he is coaching on Plant High's football team, Panthers co-defensive coordinator Matt Johnson says it's also difficult walking away from a place that helped define who he is.
"What's tough is I grew up in this program,'' said Johnson, who is leaving to accept a job with a close friend's company in Chicago. ''I kind of became the man I am coaching in this program. It's nice to be able to affect young men's lives and see them become men but it's also hard to leave a program where you became a man yourself.
"You don't establish the relations you do with the kids and coaches over the years without putting down roots. The guys that I coach with have become my best friends. It sort of feels like you are abandoning them in a way."
Johnson, 34, says the move was necessary following the birth of his third child. He said coaching high school football requires too much time for his young family and the move to the private sector of business will be a step up for them financially. His wife, Erica, a P.E. coach at Tampa's Lomax Magnet Elementary, also wanted to be closer to family in their native state of Michigan.
In addition, Johnson said his father's health is a growing concern, requiring him to be on hand if circumstances demand it.
Johnson has been coaching at Plant since 2005 and has been an integral part of all four of the Panthers' state titles. Oddly enough, he didn't coach there his first year teaching at the school in 2004. Assuming new head coach Robert Weiner had his staff in place, Johnson coached that fall at Durant under Mike Gottman.
The following season, Johnson joined Weiner as Plant's defensive backs coach. It was the position he earned a scholarship at with the University of Michigan his senior year as a walk-on. Since 2009, Johnson has been co-defensive coordinator with John Few.
While Weiner has absorbed the loss of assistant coaches in the past, including former defensive co-coordinator James Harrel, now Jesuit's head coach, Weiner says the departure of Johnson is a loss on multiple levels for his program.
"He's not only a great coach but he's also a great man and a best friend,'' Weiner said. ''We wish the very best for him but for us as a program and for me personally, losing Matt Johnson is a void that will never be filled no matter what we do.''
Johnson says thanks to the digital age, he hopes to remain connected with the program at some level. He said he will try to do film work via the Internet and come to Tampa a few games this fall. He is well known for his work breaking down an opponent reviewing game video and spent hours with his players in this type of pre-game preparation. If he can continue to do some of this work for the Panthers, Johnson says it will help with the physical distance that will exist between himself and Plant.
"Plant football isn't something you quit cold turkey. I can't walk away completely from something like that,'' Johnson said. ''I want to feel connected but I've told coach Weiner that if any point in time, it's stunting the growth of someone else or not effective, I'll bow out.''
Johnson says one of Weiner's strengths is surrounding himself with good coaches.
''Whether he brings in a new guy or not, they'll be fine,'' Johnson said. ''When James (Harrel) left, we picked up the pieces and people stepped up and we filled that hole. Robert hasn't built what he's built without being savvy and finding the best people.''
That might be true, but Weiner says Johnson is irreplaceable.
"In no way, shape or form are we the same program without Matt,'' Weiner said. ''Yes, we'll continue on and we have a tremendous staff. But losing him is like losing an arm or someone in your family. You're never quite the same.''