Clarksville, Ark.-Some sports enthusiasts might believe the University of the Ozarks took a chance when it hired a 26-year-old who had never been a college head coach to direct its men's basketball program back in 1990.
But that move paid off as Johnny Johnson became the winningest coach in program history (173) and produced a coaching career full of accomplishments. The ultimate accolade will come this Saturday, February 12, when he will be inducted into the University of the Ozarks Sports Hall of Fame.
Johnson was easily the youngest coach in the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference at the time of his hiring, and one of the youngest in college basketball. He competed with veteran coaches twice his age in the AIC. But all Johnson did was take Ozarks to two AIC Tournament Championships, two NAIA National Tournaments and one AIC championship during his 11 seasons. He earned three Coach of the Year awards during his tenure.
“I was by far the youngest coach in the AIC,” said Johnson, now the Athletics Director of the Little Rock School District. “I might have been one of the youngest head coaches in the country. I was still young enough to relate to the players, but at the same time demanding enough to make sure they obtained a degree."
His youthful looks didn’t stop him from establishing a winning tradition. The Eagles won 20-plus games three times and five of his teams finished first or second in the conference.
“I think by the third year we felt like we could compete night in and night out,” said Johnson. “The 1992-93 team could have had a couple of kids average 25 points a game, but winning was more important to them. They wanted to achieve things as a team. We were fortunate to sign Stephen Kennedy and some other good players on that team. We plugged in key guys to go along with a strong nucleus.”
Johnson’s 1992-93 team captured the AIC title, won the AIC Tournament and advanced to the second round of the NAIA National Tournament. That team also created a memorable moment for Johnson and his staff.
“Probably the most memorable game at Ozarks was the District 17 (AIC) Tournament win in 1993 against Arkansas Tech in Russellville,” said Johnson. “There was a huge crowd there and a lot of people from Clarksville. We won by over 20 points. It was a culmination of a three year process. We then went on to beat a top seed at the national tournament.”
Ozarks celebrated its regular season AIC championship in Monticello that year.
“We played at UA-Monticello on a Thursday night,” said Johnson. “We knew if we beat Monticello and Ouachita Baptist beat Arkansas Tech we would be champions. About four or five minutes left in the game, I found out that Ouachita had beaten Tech. With about 45 seconds left and a ten point lead, I told our players and we had a celebration at Monticello. It was fun to see the group we inherited later be AIC champions. That will always be a special group.”
Johnson feels indebted to the school that gave him the opportunity to be a head coach at such a young age.
“Ozarks was one of the few schools that would have highered a 26-year-old head coach,” he said. “I will always be indebted to the college for giving me the opportunity. The college and the community embraced me and my family. It will always be a special place. I still tell people Ozarks is one of the best kept secrets in Arkansas. We had a lot of fun being around the people on campus and around the community.”
His enthusiasm won over the entire Clarksville community. Community members relished the opportunity to beat bigger schools than Ozarks.
“I liked the perception we had,” said Johnson. “We were the smallest school in the league. Everyone considered us the underdog. The community and the campus enjoyed taking the floor with a bigger school like Tech or University of Central Arkansas and win. That was a source of pride for them.”
Johnson came to Ozarks from University of Arkansas-Little Rock where he served as an assistant coach under Mike Newell for three years. The Trojans made two NCAA Tournament appearances and one NIT appearance while Johnson was there. Prior to UALR, Johnson spent a year at Arkansas College under Terry Garner. Johnson considers Newell and Garner influential to his coaching career.
“Terry and Mike helped me tremendously,” said Johnson. “If it weren’t for Coach Garner I would not have got into coaching. He gave me the opportunity and an open-door invitation to come anytime. And Coach Newell didn’t treat me like a graduate assistant. I am thankful that he gave me the opportunity to coach at the Division I level. Cliff Garrison at Hendrix, Don Dyer at UCA and Monroe Ingram at Southern Arkansas made an impact on me, too. I was a young guy that they could have not paid any attention to, but they were really good to me. I have a deep appreciation for all of them.”
This year’s induction is especially meaningful for Johnson as he and longtime friend Jerry Wagoner will be inducted together. Wagoner will be inducted posthumously.
“Coach Wag was such an influential person to me,” said Johnson. “He was a fun person to be around. He was never mad and always had that big grin on his face. Jerry, Lonnie Qualls and Jack Jones were guys that helped me understand the tradition at Ozarks. They also helped me value the mission of the university. Those guys helped a lot of kids obtain their degrees and helped them get jobs.”
Johnson will also join two of his former players - Stephen Kennedy and Anthony Porchia - in the university’s Sports Hall of Fame. Kennedy was inducted in 2004, and Porchia received the honor in 2009.
“Those guys were great players, but what was more important to me was that both of them graduated in four years,” said Johnson. “They left the university happy with the decision they made to attend Ozarks. The older I get those are the things that make you feel good, not the wins or championships. Knowing you made an impact in a kids’ life and knowing they felt good about their experience is the number one thing that I can look back on and feel good about.”
Johnson and his wife, Robin, are the parents of Drake (15) and Bryce (12). Johnson is a 1984 graduate of University of Arkansas.
A banquet honoring Johnson and Wagoner will take place Saturday at 11:00 a.m. in the Seay Student Center. The induction ceremony will take place following the women’s game at 2:45 p.m. To RSVP for the banquet, please call 479-979-1234.