Getting to Know...Richard Johnson
He has earned an MBA and has served in the Wofford President’s Cabinet for eight years, but director of athletics Richard Johnson is still a coach, and a player, at heart. The former Wofford men’s basketball coach started four years as a cager at The Citadel.
“Pat Conroy recently wrote a book called ‘My Losing Season,’” says Johnson, recalling his playing days. “I feel like my idea was stolen, only my book would have been ‘My Four Straight Losing Seasons.’”
Johnson stands 6-foot-8. When he approaches you, he’s already made his point. But he diffuses a lot of that with a self-effacing sense of humor that charms and disarms at the same time. Behind the joking demeanor, though, beats the heart of a competitor.
“My one claim to fame as a player was when I scored 33 points against the leading scorer in the country, a guy named Bob McCurdy at Richmond,” he recalls. “The rest of the story is that he scored 38. I had been out 10 days with the flu. They got me off my death bed to play, and I think it’s only because I didn’t know what I was doing that I was able to compete against him.”
Thanks in large part to Johnson, Wofford’s athletic programs are now competing against the best in the region in many sports.
It all started when he was approached to coach the men’s basketball team in 1985.
“I was not originally interested in the position,” he says. “The Wofford football coach at the time had been with me at the Citadel, and I knew the sports editor here. There was a new AD (athletic director) at the time, Danny Morrison. These guys had talked to Danny, so Danny asked if I would be interested in the job.
“I said ‘Well, I’ll be happy to come talk with you,’ but I didn’t know that much about Wofford. I liked where I was and thought that was where I was going to stay for a while. But when I got here, I was impressed with the new arena, and 20 minutes into the conversation with Danny I felt he was either a visionary, crazy, or both (laughs). I think if you look up ‘visionary’ in the dictionary it’s pretty close to crazy. But he sold me on his visions of where Wofford could go, and I liked the opportunity and the challenge. So I came up for a second interview, met the people on the committee and was fortunate enough to be offered the job. I accepted right away.”
Unlike many in the coaching profession, Johnson saw his first opportunity as an end, instead of a means to an end.
“My philosophy was to not take a job if I couldn’t see myself staying there as a career ender,” he said. “A lot of people take jobs as stepping stones to other jobs. I never ascribed to that. It’s always nice to have opportunities if you want them, but I wanted to make sure I went to a place where I would be content enough to spend my entire career, and I found that here. I have never wanted to leave.”
Johnson attributes that to both the people he has worked for and the people who have worked for him.
“I give a lot of credit to the relaxed, informal management style of Joe Lesesne, who was the school president when I got here,” says Johnson. (Lesesne now works with the football team as an assistant coach) “He was a hands-off manager and a guy who set a tone for this place to be like it is. He once described Wofford to me as a place where people do serious work, but don’t take themselves too seriously. To me, that’s exactly what it is and it’s why I like it here. I have found a general collegiality, civility and respect for others here. You can have fun here.
“Bernie Dunlap has come in and been Joe Lesesne II, only with polysyllabic words (laughs). They both have the same management style, and they both have created and fostered this culture and this environment. Obviously it’s more than just those two people, but it filters down and people pick up on it.”
Still, in athletics, you need more than a good atmosphere to be successful. You need athletes and above all, you need a plan. Enter Johnson.
“We were NAIA my first two years,” he says. “Then we made the move to NCAA Division II for seven years. In 1993, we had a task force to ascertain where we should be. Going into it, if I had to bet money I’d have bet we were going to go Division III. I think that was the bias of the committee going in, and I was fine with that. But as we weighed our options, we would have been the only Division III school in the state.
“The people we had historically played…Furman, Davidson, The Citadel…were all Division I. They were in the Southern Conference, so we went through it and came up with a plan, and the task force’s recommendation was that we move to Division I. People thought we were crazy. They said we would fail, that we couldn’t possibly compete at that level. But I don’t think they understood the lack of ego involved. I don’t think they understood the willingness of (current football coach) Mike Ayers or of Danny to work like they did.”
There was some good fortune involved, of course.
“We did it with a plan to find conference affiliation when the right opportunity came along,” says Johnson. “It would have been impossible to survive as an independent for very long. Luckily we didn’t have to worry about it. Not even six months into it the Southern Conference gave us an opportunity to join the league. We accepted the invitation in November of ‘95, and began conference play in the 97-98 season.”
That’s when the stars began to align for Johnson to move into his current position.
“Right about that time, (current Dean of the College) David Wood came along,” recalls Johnson. “Danny Morrison moved from athletic director to senior vice president. David came in as vice president for campus services and director of athletics. In the fall of 2001, Danny was named Commissioner of the Southern Conference. David was promoted to replace him as senior vice president, and then Dr. Dunlap asked me to become athletic director. In turn, I had the opportunity to promote my longtime assistant, Mike Young, to head basketball coach.
“We all kind of just shuffled chairs a little bit. Part of why I was interested in the AD position was that 1) I’d already had my hand in athletic administration here, because we wear so many hats, and 2) I have an MBA and it’s something I had wanted to get into long term. I really enjoyed coaching and wanted to continue coaching, but I was concerned the opportunity wouldn’t be there for another 10-15 years, so I took it. I did both for one season, and found out that didn’t really do justice to either job. I went full time as the AD in the spring of 2002.”
While he has enjoyed pulling the strings of Wofford’s athletics program ever since, a huge part of Johnson misses coaching.
“I love competing,” he says. “I love seeing our kids go out there. People say ‘What do you miss most about coaching?’ It’s the close personal relationships that you form with these guys. In competition, you are exposed. Your raw emotions are out there for everybody to see in the heat of the competition. There’s a bond that occurs there between players and coaches. You have a common goal and you work hard. Success is all merit-based. It doesn’t matter who your daddy is or how much money you have. It’s whether you can play or not. It’s a great equalizer.
“I loved matching wits with someone else as a coach. I loved trying different things. I miss the locker room and hanging out with the players. I miss the bus trips. I miss the team meals. When I get together with some of the old guys to tell stories, they’ll ask me if I have any new ones, and the stories seemed to stop in ‘02. I don’t have any new ones. (laughs)”
It’s clearly a different role for Johnson now. He’s the CEO of all the different programs, making the big decisions that usually don’t show up in the win/loss column right away.
“As an athletic director, the euphoria from winning isn’t the same,” he says. “You’re excited about it, but when we went to Montana two seasons ago and won that playoff game, they might as well have put me with the excess baggage. That’s how I felt because I had nothing to do with that directly.
“The payoff as an athletic director is more long term. As a coach you work hard and you go out and compete, and you get your result immediately. People don’t believe me when I tell them this, but I even miss that sick feeling you’d get the day after a loss, and you had to pick yourself back up and get going for the next game. There was a vitality involved, something you knew you had to do. You knew you were alive.
“It’s a much slower reward system as athletic director. You do something today and it affects the football or basketball program five years from now. You have scheduling and allocation of resources and fundraising and staffing…all those kinds of things. There’s no immediate feedback. It’s a longer term commitment.”
Johnson, like those he has worked for, prefers a hands off approach to running his department. Hire good people and stay out of their way unless they need you is his motto.
“I want young, aggressive, hard working people who are passionate about their job and getting it done,” he says. “To me, it’s recruiting, it’s energy, it’s drive. Those are the people who are successful. I’ve surrounded myself with those kinds of people, and I can say that we have created a team.
“When everybody is pulling in the same direction and everybody knows their value and is appreciated, then you get really quality work. We’re operating with two thirds of the staff that a lot of our peers have. But we get prodigious amounts of work out of our people, and if we didn’t have that camaraderie and pride in what we do, I don’t think we’d have near the success.”
And to think, it all started by accident for Johnson.
“I had my undergraduate business degree back at The Citadel and I shared my thoughts with Les Robinson (the only person in NCAA history to serve as head basketball coach and director of athletics at three Division I institutions) and he said ‘Have you ever thought about coaching?’ He was the one who got me thinking about a grad assistantship. Well, it didn’t get funded, but it turns out one of his assistants left and he took the chance and hired me full time. I was able to go back and get my MBA, but of course once I started coaching I loved it and wanted to stay in it.
“If it hadn’t have been for that, who knows what I’d be doing? I wouldn’t be having as much fun. I hope I have another 10-15 years or so left in me, but when I look back and think about how lucky I’ve been, it’s really something. When I look at the people I have reported to…Les Robinson, Danny Morrison, David Wood, Bernie Dunlap and Joe Lesesne…it just doesn’t get any better than that. When people tell me they don’t get along with their boss, I have no frame of reference. When you’re a couple of weeks from the double nickel, that’s pretty amazing to be able to say you’ve never worked for somebody you just didn’t like.”