Renard Johnson claims not to have watched a single frame of film prior to tonight’s boys’ basketball county championship game, which pits his 3A/2A/1A League champion Potomac High School Wolverines against 4A League champion Henry A. Wise.
Whether he caved or not was never made clear, but if there’s one thing Johnson knows, film or no film, it’s the coach who will be standing on the opposite sideline at 7:30 tonight at Wise in Upper Marlboro.
He and Wise coach Rob Garner grew up in the same town, played for the same high school (Potomac) and college (University of Delaware), and returned back to Prince George’s County to coach the same team (Friendly).
In their younger years, Garner (Potomac class of 1991) had idolized Johnson (Class of 1986). Johnson had recruited Garner as a graduate assistant, unsuccessfully at first, as Garner committed to Texas before transferring to Delaware, where Johnson had played a critical role in swaying him.
“We kind of laugh about it, about this moment happening, about our two teams playing against each other,” Garner said. “And the great thing about it is we both care about our community so much with Renard’s community at Potomac and my community in Upper Marlboro and trying to establish that brotherhood between these two teams.
“I know how competitive Renard is and I knew it was only a matter of time before he turned that program into a high-quality program.”
Garner first saw this drive when he was an eighth grader, “just a little guy who had some game,” while Johnson was a senior establishing himself as “one of the best guards to ever come through Potomac in history,” Garner said. “We’ve had notable, big time alumni and depending on who you talk to, a lot of people would rank Renard in the top 5 or top 10 ever, and you have to be in the community to understand how important that is.”
Potomac, as both coaches would note frequently, is a tradition-rich community. Alumni regularly come back to check up on the programs they helped build. When Johnson was a freshman at Virginia Military Institute, where he was awarded the Southern Conference Rookie of the Year, he had heard of that “little guy who had some game,” and he made sure to follow him.
As an eighth grader, Garner was billed as the No. 1 guard in the area. A year later, he became the first freshman to start for Potomac in the school’s history.
“It was a different time back then,” Johnson said. “You played [junior varsity] as a freshman, you didn’t make varsity as a sophomore, were lucky to make it as a junior, and you earned your playing time as a senior. Back then we sort of waited our turn.”
In 1990, Delaware named Johnson the team’s Most Valuable Player. In 1996, the co-honor went to Garner, who had kept in touch with Johnson while at Texas and transferred to Delaware seeking more playing time.
By this point, Johnson had abandoned his graduate assistant post and was coaching CYL girls, so the two interacted very little while Garner finished out his career as a Blue Hen. In 2010, however, the two “stumbled across” one another. Garner was set to be the head coach at Friendly. He wanted Johnson on his staff.
“I’m not sure how it happened, whether he reached out to me or I reached out to him, but it was a no-brainer,” Garner said. “If we were going to be the best, why not have the best teachers?”
That year, the two carried the Patriots to county, league, and region titles before falling to Milford Mill in the state finals. The next season, Garner took the job at Wise, Johnson at Potomac.
“It’s that challenge,” Garner said of their reasoning for switching schools. “It’s that competitive drive we have. Me and coach Johnson are cut from the same cloth.”
Even with the championship still to be played, Johnson holds no secrets with his game plan: “You bring your five,” he said, “I’ll bring my five, and we’ll see who’s better. Just like out on the playground.”
“To be able to play in a game like this, in a county like this, it’s tough, it’s a blessing, man,” Garner said. “It’s a blessing that me and coach Johnson get to coach on the same stage.”
There’s yet one more stage they could coach this year where they wouldn’t have to view one another as foes: Comcast Center for the state tournament. Two Prince George’s teams winning the state championship in the same year hasn’t happened since 2004. This is as promising an opportunity as ever.
That, Garner said, would be the greatest blessing yet.