Monroe’s Sowell picked up state coach of the year honors this spring
by Aaron Garcia
In reality, there isn’t much of a difference between Johnny Sowell’s current slate, which he refers to as “Johnny Time,” and the schedule he adheres to during the school year. From now until football workouts officially begin on June 13, Sowell will still spend his daytime hours at Monroe High, where he serves as the head football, boys basketball and track and field coach.
This week, though, his evenings have been a little more active than usual at this time of year. But considering the reason for the hectic itinerary, he doesn’t mind.
This spring, Sowell was selected by the N.C. High School Athletic Association to receive the Harvey Reid Male Coach of the Year award, the top honor among male public-school coaches in the state. As a result, Sowell has been busy this week.
On June 7, Sowell joined his girls track team at the Union County Board of Education meeting, where they were honored for their third-place finish at this year’s Class 1A state championships. Several other successful Union County sports teams were recognized at the meeting as well.
The party continued on June 9 when Sowell was the guest of honor at the Monroe Rotary Club as the organization held a “roast” of the coach as its spring fundraiser.
The state award itself, much like the Rotary Club roast and the Board of Education mention, is well deserved. In the last two years alone, Sowell’s football team has compiled a 21-6 record, while the Redhawks basketball team has gone 49-11 and won the Class 1A state title during the 2009-10 season.
As Sowell tells it, the accolades are simply the product of the entire school’s effort.
“I think the things we’ve done in the last two to three years had a lot to do with it, too,” he said. “I think people understand that we’re trying to do things the right way. To do that, you’ve got to have good people around you. Your supporting cast has to be big for you.”
But according to those around Sowell, he’s being modest.
“He’s very special to the Monroe community, and I think he’s very special because he symbolizes just what he’s trying to do, and that’s help the young people come up through the ranks in athletics and in education and be successful,” said Monroe High Principal Doreen Dotalo. “He’s become kind of a folk hero.”
Monroe Rotary Club President Pam Sanders agreed. Sanders graduated from Monroe High in 1982, the year after Sowell, and was friends with his sister, Annie. Furthermore, Sanders’ two sons, Justin and Jake, played for Sowell on the Redhawks’ football team, so she’s quite familiar with what Sowell has meant to the Monroe community.
“He’s been not just a coach to a lot of boys and girls at that school, but he’s a mentor,” Sanders noted. “He’s a good disciplinarian, and the students know that and they take him seriously, but yet he guides them in the right direction. He’s just a good person, all the way around.”
While attending Monroe High, Sowell led the basketball team to a state title during his junior year before matriculating to Appalachian State University to play football. The fact that Sowell earned the state’s coach of the year award while working at his high school alma mater makes the accomplishment even more special, said Dotalo.
“He will be the first to tell you how much (athletics and academics) helped his life, so to return to the school and do the same thing for other young men and young women (of Monroe) is really quite something,” said Dotalo.
To Sowell, the attention is indicative of something greater. For the second consecutive school year, Monroe High will send a football player to Duke University, with senior Jamison Crowder soon joining 2010 graduate Issac Blakeney on the Durham campus. For Sowell, it’s one thing to give an athlete an opportunity to play in college, but the fact that players are moving to academically prestigious colleges such as Duke says the Redhawks are doing things the right way.
“Nobody’s going to just get on a bus and say, ‘Well, let’s ride to Monroe,’” Sowell said. “They’ve got to know why they’re coming to Monroe, and they’re coming to Monroe because they’re hearing there’s some pretty good athletes here and they’re pretty good student-athletes as well.”
Though Sowell isn’t the type to brag, he admitted that he was looking forward to the week, even the roast. He expected to see close friends and past acquaintances in attendance, and if some of them stepped up to the podium with some embarrassing stories from his past, well, that would’ve been just fine, too.
But Sowell admitted he was slightly concerned about the event’s underlying message.
“It’ll be the first time someone gets a roast and they’re not retiring,” said Sowell with a laugh. “I thank God my health is there and I’m pretty sure I’ve got a job next year.
“Nobody has told me I don’t.”
Dotalo said there isn’t anything for Sowell to worry about.
“A lot of kids would be lost without him,” she said.
And for that, Sowell is more than worthy of an award.