Longtime area ref: 'You learn how to deal with people'

Mar. 7—CHAMPAIGN — There's a good chance you've seen Keith Johnson without thinking twice about it.

That's fine by the longtime IHSA official and Rantoul native who, by his own admission, didn't give many technicals during 48 years behind the whistle.

"I'm good at talking everybody off of the ledge," Johnson said. "You learn how to deal with people. The main thing is you just let people go, get it out of their system."

After five decades of wearing the stripes, the final buzzer of a Class 3A regional semifinal between Champaign Central and Urbana on Feb. 21 marked the end of the road for Johnson's lauded career.

A retirement savings plan manager at State Universities Retirement System of Illinois by trade, Johnson is serving as one of 15 team hosts at the IHSA state boys' basketball tournament this week before retiring to a lakefront property in northern Indiana. His last day at SURS will be April 30.

He'll also spend time down south during colder months, which until now were spent in the crowded confines of high school gyms.

"Very satisfied, very gratifying career," Johnson said. "You know, it's never easy to quit, but I pretty well prepared myself mentally."

Johnson experienced the profession's pinnacle in the form of assignments to the IHSA state finals at Peoria's Carver Arena in 2008 and 2010.

Seeing him walk onto the floor during a summer league scrimmage or middle school contest was never a strange sight, either.

"As far as I'm concerned, Keith has one of the best judgments in this area," fellow official Brad Parrish said. "He just has that mentality of being able to adjust to the game and for some that's hard to do."

Parrish knows Johnson's game better than most. He and Rich Doman have teamed with Johnson on the area's biggest games for the last 14 years.

Name one of the region's storied rivalries — from Champaign Central vs. Centennial to Peoria powers Richwoods and Manual — and Johnson has put in the work to call it properly.

"We have our own pregame on the way to the game," Johnson said. "We talk about the players, we talk about the offenses they run, the defenses they run, who's going to press, who you can't take an eye off of. There's a lot that goes into it. We ride together almost all the time."

Administrators will miss someone they could trust with big assignments. There's not much Johnson will miss more than chopping it up with his crew before and after games.

"We've been fortunate over the years to have a lot of people we can trust to do those and (Keith) and his guys are right up there with the best we've ever had," Unity athletic director Scott Hamilton said. "They're just very professional in their approach."

While worth it, those assignments took their toll.

"The shortage of officials is just killing us," Johnson said. "By the time the end of the season rolls around, we're worn out. Emotionally exhausted. The physical thing is one aspect, but the emotional is another. When you have a St. Joseph-Ogden/Unity game or a Central/Centennial game, the next day you don't want one of them again. You need time to recuperate."

Baseball was Johnson's first love as a teenager in Rantoul, where his ability as a shortstop nearly earned him a walk-on spot on Illinois State's baseball team after graduating from Rantoul Township in 1976.

Today, Johnson estimates the injury he suffered the night before he was to start practicing with the Redbirds would be diagnosed as a torn ACL. At the time, it left him unable to jog for six months and seeking another way to stay busy.

"That's how life broke for me then," Johnson said. "I probably would have been a bench player at ISU as far as that goes, but (baseball) was one of my favorite sports to play as far as that goes. I was better at baseball than I was at basketball."

Calling intramural sports offered a good way to do that. And having played basketball as a student at Rantoul, he took to the sport quickly under the direction of Big Ten official Randy Newman.

"The interesting thing was he took four of us aside and each night, he would tell us to focus on working on one thing. So we might look at the pivot foot and traveling one night, worry about post play the next night. There's always something different."

Johnson credits the likes of Roger Quinlan, John Sullivan and Dick Carter with helping him get his legs underneath him in a challenging role. He returned to Rantoul to teach after graduating from ISU and his officiating career began in earnest.

"I would work the JV game, they'd each work a half with me and then I'd sit and watch them work the varsity game," Johnson said. "I kind of had a pretty good upbringing, a good start that a lot of them don't get."

It's not uncommon for new officials to get their first varsity games much sooner than Johnson and his peers did.

Johnson vividly remembers settling nerves before his first varsity game, a fill-in assignment at Clifton Central in 1979 that he wasn't sure if he was ready for."

"It was a makeup game and Steve Newman asked me if I would go do it," Johnson said. "You never forget your first one ... it went well. It went off without a hitch and everything."

It took another few years for Johnson to become a regular on the big stage.

"The rest is history after that," Johnson said. "You start working lower level, you know, like 1A and 2A schools and then really for probably, the past little over 30 years, I've done a lot of 3A and 4A games and of course I worked the 3A championship games."

The average age of 35,813 officials surveyed by the National Association of Sports Officials was 56.68 years old. And 79.06 percent of respondents cited officiating shortages as a reason for taking more assignments.

"Something's got to give, we've got to get more people officiating," Johnson said. "In the next five years, there's going to be a lot of people retiring. Coaches and ADs have asked me what's going to happen? I said, you're going to have fifth-year officials working varsity games ... the problem is they're going to get roasted and they're going to get frustrated, they're going to quit."

Rival schools rarely agree on much, but few would argue Johnson's ability to connect with coaches and keep control of intense games.

"His professionalism as an official and his overall passion and love for the game of basketball was so evident to see," SJ-O athletic director Justin Franzen said. "Keith is always very organized, he's always somebody that is ready to roll and will do whatever it takes to help other people out in a pinch."

Johnson is equally dependable off the floor.

"He's really helped me through a tough time over this last year," Parrish said. "My wife is battling cancer and I've kind of leaned on him just to vent at times. He's been a very good friend to me."

The state playoff games that Johnson and crew called are cherished memories. Johnson has a basketball signed by every official that worked the 2010 tournament with him.

Those games stand out among a litany of heart-pounding games and ear-piercing crowds, like a sectional championship between Prairie Central and St. Anne in the mid-1990s that took three overtimes to settle.

"We're trying to get off the floor to our room and here comes the St. Anne coach, he's running faster than we are," Johnson said.

"We're like, 'Oh, no, here we go.' And he put his hand on my shoulder and he says, 'Can I tell you something?' OK, you got me. He says, 'I want to tell you guys that is the best officiated game I've ever seen and by the way, I'm the coach that lost,' you know that meant a lot."

Tributes flooded in during Johnson's last tour of the area starting with a ceremony before a game at SJ-O's annual Toyota of Danville Classic.

Among others, Prairie Central honored Johnson on social media after its game against Rantoul on Jan. 16. Mahomet-Seymour invited the crowd to applaud Johnson before its game against Urbana on Feb. 6.

"It's not often an official gets a standing ovation," Johnson said. "A lot of hard work went into it, you know, all the conditioning and all the studying and everything. It's slow work, but it's a very rewarding career, advocation, whatever you want to call it. I don't have too many regrets, I'll put it that way."

Five decades in the business of helping young athletes leads to that kind of recognition.

"Any time you can donate over four decades to anything and be consistent with it, my hat is off to you," Urbana boys' basketball coach Verdell Jones said.

"(As a referee) you're not paid a lot, but your commitment is to the integrity of the game."

Johnson's penultimate game — his final contest with Doman and Parrish — was a Class 2A regional quarterfinal between Monticello and Macon Meridian on Feb. 19.

That the trio knew the moment was coming didn't lessen its impact.

"That was very, very difficult," Johnson said. "After 14 years of working together, that was really tough to get through. But all good things have to come to an end."

A return to the court in some capacity isn't out of the cards for Johnson just yet.

Mentoring young officials or calling more games is on the table after he gets settled in Indiana. The physical demands of officiating aren't a concern thanks to a regular walking regimen.

"Let me get moved, let me get settled in," Johnson said. "I said, the only thing I think I might do is mentor new young officials over there. But I have to get the lay of the land and see how things works over there. Come September, it might be a little hard if I'm not donning the stripes."

His days of easing the minds of coaches and administrators in central Illinois, however, will be missed.

"Everybody's like, 'why didn't you go for 50 years?" Johnson said. "I said, 'what, are you going to put it on my tombstone?' I'm going out at a good time, I'm going out on a good note."