Mixed emotions filled the locker room at Don Sanders Stadium on Wednesday, Feb. 9 after Sam Houston State head baseball coach Mark Johnson told his team he planned to retire at the end of the upcoming season.

The Bearkats were caught off guard by the sudden news, but after the initial shock wore off, they were just thankful for the opportunity they had to play for one of the most respected coaches in college baseball.

"Obviously he is excited in his decision and it is time for him to move on. He has touched the game in such a way in his 40-plus years of coaching," senior Braeden Riley said Friday afternoon. "He has nothing left to prove. It is sad for the guys that are younger than me, but I was lucky enough to play for him for four years. You aren't going to find any better coach or guy to learn from."

Johnson has poured his heart into college baseball for 41 years, most notably as the head coach at Texas A&M from 1984 to 2005 where he guided the Aggies to five conference championships, 13 NCAA regional appearances and two College World Series.

But in Bearkat country, Johnson is known for breathing new life into a proud baseball program. Johnson was hired in 2006 and quickly turned Sam Houston into one of the premier teams in the Southland Conference.

The Bearkats won the SLC tournament in 2007, the first of three in a row, which also led to three consecutive trips to the NCAA regionals. In '07, Sam Houston won a pair of games in the Oxford (Miss.) Regional and earned a spot in the tournament's championship round.

Johnson said one of the hardest parts about retiring was that he had never quit anything before. But he felt now was the time to shift his focus to his family and enjoy watching his grandchildren grow up with his wife Linda.

"I told (SHSU athletic director) Bobby Williams that this was hard for a number of reasons, but the biggest was because I have never quit a job before," Johnson said Friday. "I got fired at A&M, I got released by professional baseball, but I have never walked in and told somebody I quit. But I'm at peace with it. I don't think it is a bad thing.

"We have had success here. We have a great recruiting class coming in, a good freshman class now and this program is going to attract some quality coaching candidates, and we have two right here on staff. I enjoyed being a part of it, and I'm thankful for the opportunity. My priority now is my family and my grandkids."

Johnson's success reaches further than what his teams have done on the field. Sure, notching more than 1,000 career victories is something to take notice of, but it has been his impact on his players' lives and his involvement in the community which has made his time in Huntsville special.

"He is straightforward and honest and we respect that," senior pitcher Justin Jackson said. "He has definitely influenced me. I'm a kinesiology major and he has influenced me to maybe be a coach, so I can help out people anyway I can. That is the type of example he leads."

The past four years have certainly been entertaining times around Don Sanders Stadium. The Bearkats might have struggled last season after their impressive three-year run, but Johnson kept the game fun, which is something his players appreciate.

Winning a regular-season championship and another Southland tournament title was the goal heading into this season to begin with, but the Bearkats would really like to send their coach into retirement on top.

"He has done so much and he has earned to be sent out on a high note," Riley said. "He has put into the game so much, given so much to not only us, but A&M and other places. Baseball is a game where you just can't go out and win because you say you want to win. But this certainly motivates us to work harder, to practice harder so that we can send him out on the right note."

For now, Johnson just wants things to get back to normal. He doesn't want a farewell tour or any ticker-tape parades as he visits other stadiums for the final time in his coaching career.

He said it would have been easier to make his announcement at the end of the season so he could just walk away and be done with it. But that wasn't the right thing to do, in his opinion, which shows just what kind of man he is, putting others first.

"I just wanted everybody to know what I was planning to do," Johnson said. "I wanted Bobby Williams to have a heads up and my assistant coaches and players. I also wanted the recruits to know to help this program continue to move forward. I'm sure it will not affect them and other coaches won't try to recruit them because I'm leaving. They make their choice for the university, not the coach, but this job will attract some good applicants.

"For me, sure it would have been a piece of cake to wait until the end of the season. I could say, 'I'm retired and done with it.' That would not have been right. I just don't want this to linger. I'm ready to move on. We have 56 games this season and we want to win another championship. It is time to focus on that."