For 48 years, Johnny Coffman has been an inseparable part of the identity of McMinn County High School athletics. He has been its voice.
But the moment the Cherokees’ football season comes to a close — whenever and wherever that happens to be in the playoffs — it will also mark the end of Coffman’s legendary career behind the microphone as the “Voice of the Cherokees.”
Coffman, 69, was celebrated at halftime of the Tribe’s last regular-season home game against Maryville on Oct. 23, with McMinn County Mayor John Gentry reading a proclamation in his honor.
Not long after that, Coffman was still overwhelmed at just how long this chapter of his life had extended, following much the same routine year after year since he had called his first McMinn County sporting event in January 1973, taking the microphone in the middle of the Cherokees’ ongoing basketball season.
“It’s never really hit me how long 48 years is,” said Coffman in an interview with The Daily Post-Athenian. “I was 21 years old when I started doing this. I’ve been doing this my whole adult life. Back when I hit about the early 40s as far as number of years (as the “Voice of the Cherokees”), I never really thought about it again, it just kept coming and coming, and I never really thought about it, about how long it’d been. Football’s over, well, it’s time for basketball. Basketball ends, well, I get a break, it’ll be six months before football stats again, so I get to do some stuff around the house and things like that.”
It was about at his 40th year on call that Coffman figured he could make it one full decade more. But an accident two years ago at a football game, in which Coffman hurt his back and rolled his ankle, caused him to start considering retirement a couple of years before he had hoped to. It made it difficult for Coffman to walk, and he ended up having two surgeries and neuropathy over the following months.
With Coffman needing more help carrying his equipment up the stands at away basketball games and often needing assistance on his climbs to the press box during football games, the reality had started to hit.
“I still have to have help, and I hate, hate somebody having to help me. I just hate it,” Coffman said. “And I got to thinking a couple of years ago that I’m just going to have to stop this. After the back surgeries and things started happening, which has been in the last two years.”
Coffman’s retirement also lines up perfectly with the graduation of his step-grandson Bryce Goodner, the McMinn offensive lineman who is verbally committed to play football at Virginia Tech next fall. And Coffman intends to watch Goodner play for the Hokies as much as he can.
“I just don’t want to be in a situation where I’m having to do a ball game on Friday, and I need to leave on Friday night to get to wherever they’re playing on Saturday,” Coffman said. “And that’s the big thing right there, as far as football goes.”
After he’s called his last game, Coffman’s tenure will have spanned eight football coaches, five boys’ basketball coaches and nine girls’ basketball coaches.
A 1969 McMinn County High School graduate, Coffman’s radio career started part time in 1970 while a student at the University of Tennessee, beginning at WYXI in Athens and later moving on to WKYZ in Madisonville.
Then in January 1973, nearing graduation from UT, Coffman locked down the morning shift at WLAR in Athens, and his legendary career began. Coffman took over on call in the middle of the Cherokees’ basketball season and worked his first football game in the fall of 1973. He had split his time between Athens and Madisonville until the late 1970s when he became full-time in Athens.
In addition to calling McMinn, Coffman was also working basketball games at Tennessee Wesleyan, which he had still done up to last season. Coffman had also broadcast McMinn baseball his first seven years, from 1973-1979, but had to stop once he started working at the Bowater paper mill in 1979, since Tribe baseball games took place during the day. Coffman worked at Bowater from then until his retirement from there in 2013. He was production scheduling supervisor the last 30 years of his tenure there.
“My dad always worked two jobs, and I guess I just felt like that’s what I was supposed to do, too,” Coffman said.
Of the many McMinn teams he has called, Coffman still remembers the 1975 football team having a “special season.” Those Cherokees, who had future Tennessee Volunteer standout Hubert Simpson, got off to an 11-0 start and had their season end in a playoff semifinals loss to Oak Ridge. In the regular-season finale, McMinn had scored a late touchdown against Knoxville Central, and then Coach Benny Monroe went for two, going for the win instead of the tie.
“And I thought, ‘Man, what are you doing?’” Coffman said. “But they made the two-point conversion and won 15-14.”
McMinn had followed that season with a 21-14 win over No. 1-ranked Baylor in the first round of the playoffs, before falling to eventual state champion Oak Ridge. Other Cherokee teams Coffman remembers fondly are the 1987 playoff quarterfinals team with Shazzon Bradley, and the 2009 team that made the second round of the playoffs and came within a touchdown plus two points of Maryville in the second round of the playoffs, featuring Kevin McDermott.
Coffman attributes much of his success as the “Voice of the Cherokees” to his attention to detail. He made it a point to prepare for every game, even calling the opposing team’s coach for a starting lineup on offense and defense, then making sure he referred to all players — both the Cherokees and their opponents — by name.
“I’ve never been one that can just halfway do something,” Coffman said. “If I’ve got a football game, it amazes me. I’d go into a press box and sometimes I can have somebody from the opposing team’s station come over and ask me for a lineup. Well, I don’t have any problem giving them a lineup, I’ve always got one. I’ve always got one of the other team, too. But I cannot imagine being so unprepared that I don’t even have a lineup.
“If I don’t have the skill people on offense and the defensive players, if i don’t have them memorized, then I’m going to be very familiar with them to the point I can just glance at the roster and say who they are. Because I’m not going to say ‘No. 25 is carrying the ball.’ I’m just not going to do that.”
Of all the things Coffman will miss after hanging up the microphone, the relationships he’s formed stand out the most. One of his many examples was all the players and coaches from the 1975 McMinn football team.
“All those kids I knew and knew so well and still know them to this day, 45 years later, the relationships I developed with the players, with the coaches, it’s a unique relationship,” Coffman said. “Somehow or another, I’m not saying you’re accepted to their circle, but it gives you a common bond. And you can always talk ball. You may not agree on politics, but you can always talk ball, and no matter what it is.”
And one of Coffman’s best friends was former DPA editor Jack Slayton.
“Jack, when he had that heart attack, it floored me,” Coffman said. “He and I were very close.”
Another of his best friends was former DPA managing editor Richard Edwards, who covered many McMinn sporting events for the newspaper, and whom Coffman remembered for his uncanny memory.
“He was the go-to guy at the high school,” Coffman said. “They’d say, ‘How long has it been since that happened, Richard?’ Then bang, right off the top of his head. I had to go to my file. I could find it, but Richard would know as soon as the game was over.”
Coffman’s remaining time as the “Voice of the Cherokees” will last as long as McMinn advances in the football playoffs — which he hopes won’t be for a few more weeks.
“We have a place rented at the beach at St. George Island in Florida for the month starting Nov. 7, which is the day after the first playoff game,” Coffman said. “Mary (wife) and her sister who lives in Illinois is coming down. Of course, I’m not going, because we have a playoff game the day before. So she’s coming down to pick her up and take her on down. And I said, ‘I hope I don’t get there.’ Because I do, I hope I don’t get there. Because whenever they lose, I’m done. And of course, whenever they lose, they’re done. And this has been a special year.”
Coffman isn’t sure if he’ll even go to McMinn football games next year as a fan.
“I’ll have people tell me, ‘Aw, you’ll still go to ball games,’” Coffman said. “I don’t know if I will or not. And it’s not because I won’t love them, it’s because it may hurt too much. If I can’t go in the press box, not that I’d be kicked out, but I’m not working anymore. If I’m going to a ball game, I’m working and happy to be a part of it. And I just want to be a part of it. And I’ve always felt like I was involved, and it may just hurt too much. And particularly in high school football, which I love with my whole heart.”
One thing, however, is that Coffman won’t stop staying involved, both in McMinn athletics and the community. Coffman’s file cabinets at home are filled with everything from old programs, McMinn football scores gathered from hours of research for nearly every game since the Cherokees became an accredited program in 1927, as well as game statistics for many of those games. And he’s started an effort recently to get it all digital.
“So I’ve got enough stuff trying to get my records straightened out and my file cabinets cleaned up to keep me busy for quite a while,” Coffman said.
Coffman is also on four committees that he will still be a part of: Athens City School Board, Athens Parks & Recreation, McMinn County Juvenile Services and Grace & Mercy Ministries. The past 15 years, he has also been the organist and pianist at Mars Hill Presbyterian Church.
“I may give something up before long. I’m almost 70, I can’t keep doing all this stuff forever,” Coffman said. “But as long as I still feel good and still feel like I’m halfway sharp mentally, I like getting involved.”
And Bryce Goodner has a younger brother, Marshall, who is currently in sixth grade and has become a major playmaker for the current McMinn Cutters in youth football despite just starting the sport. If Marshall, Coffman’s younger step-grandson, plays football in high school, Coffman will be at his games.
And family is important to Coffman, and he considers the last five years he has had his older son, Justin, calling games beside him to be the best.
“One of the biggest joys for me has been able to work with Justin for the past five years,” Coffman said. “Terry Patrick was gracious to step aside and go to the sideline, and I think that was a great move for everybody because he has developed into a wonderful sideline reporter. Justin and I, I remember the first time he did it, he wouldn’t open his mouth. But being able to work with your son is special.”
Coffman also has a granddaughter, Kenadee Coffman, to babysit. And he hopes he won’t annoy his wife, Mary, too much with all that extra time he’ll have on his hands.
“It’ll be interesting to see how I respond in the next year. It may not be pretty,” Coffman said. “I feel sorry for my wife. I really, really do. And I do need to give a shoutout to her, because we’ve been married for 29 years, and she has been wonderful.”