We are saddened by the loss of Ernie Johnson who passed away September 15, 2013. Exactly one year prior, Ernie was at the private screening for Touchdown Newport. He absolutely loved the movie. Those of us lucky enough to have played for him at Newport Harbor join the legion of El Rancho players and fans who mourn him today. Ernie was more interested in creating great men than great football players. He wanted to win because he wanted his players to know that anyone could become successful through dedication and hard work. Coach, you were right. His career high school record (including Newport Harbor) was 116-33-5. Our deepest sympathy and love go out to his wife of 30 years, Vicki Johnson.


The 1970s were a time of turmoil in the United States and around the world. The social revolutions of the 1960s were painted over the backdrop of the war in Vietnam. Yet life in Newport Beach, California, still revolved around the surf, sun and sand. Newport Harbor High School excelled in water polo, tennis, surfing and sailing – not football. Since the school’s founding forty years earlier, the football team had managed to win only one league championship. That was all about to change when coaching legend Ernie Johnson came to town. By 1970 Ernie Johnson had established himself as one of the best high school football coaches in Southern California. During his 23 years at Pico Rivera’s El Rancho High School, his teams won nine league and four Southern California section championships. In 1966, El Rancho was also voted high school national champion.

Moving from Pico Rivera to Newport Beach, Ernie Johnson says, “he was moving to an economic opposite.” The question became whether he could find a way to motivate kids who would rather go to the beach than train for football. As many Newport players say, his effect was immediate. Coach Johnson laid out a dream; with enough dedication and hard work, the team could win Southern California’s Sunset League championship. Coach Johnson later said he always believed Newport had talented athletes; they just never expected to win at football. He knew the most important thing was getting the players to believe in themselves. During the spring and summer of 1970, the team bonded around Coach Johnson and began to believe.

Touchdown Newport follows the 1970 football season starting with an eye-opening scrimmage against powerhouse Mater Dei and the first two games of the Ernie Johnson era against strong crosstown rivals Corona del Mar and Costa Mesa. The third game of the season was the beginning game of league play and Newport faced its biggest challenge of the season, Anaheim High School and their legendary coach Claire Van Hoorebeke. In the previous 20 years, Newport Harbor had lost to Anaheim 19 times. The game was the sixth meeting between the coaches; Van Hoorebeke led 3-2. Coach Johnson idolized Van Hoorebeke and was determined to prepare his Newport Harbor team to beat Anaheim.

After this challenge, Newport still faced six more league opponents – some of which were the best teams in Southern California: Westminster, Marina, Loara, and Huntington Beach. Through the highs and lows of the season, the Newport team began to believe in themselves and were in a position to achieve the dream of being league champions. Forty years later, the players reflect on the magic of playing on that team and the significance of the lessons Coach Ernie Johnson taught them.