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Leaving The Building

From Elvis to the Big East, R.C. Johnson reflecs on 16 years as University of Memphis Athletic Director.

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You've described your decision to retire as a matter of being the "right time." How did you define the right time? And when exactly did you decide?

Originally, my contract expired in 2008. We reached the Final Four, and I thought this is the perfect time. But one thing led to another. Now, there's so much going on. Conference USA is having a heck of a time; they don't really want to bring the basketball tournament here. [Memphis and UCF — both leaving C-USA for the Big East — have the only bids on the 2013 tourney.] Then the Big East meetings and fund-raising. Retirement really hasn't settled in.

The day I recall the most was a call from my kids. [Johnson and his wife, Melba, have three children and five grandchildren.] It kind of hit me between the eyes. They asked, "How much longer are you going? Why don't you and Mom take some time?" I told them I'm retiring, and then they asked, "What about Final Four tickets?"

Sixteen years — as measured in sports terms — is a long time. Do you feel like a Memphis institution?

At the Big East meetings last month, I looked around the room, and there was a 38-year-old athletic director. It took me two days to get him to quit calling me Mr. Johnson. He's a friend of my nephew, who's at UCLA. I went to a reception and met one of the coaches' wives ... and I thought she was the daughter of someone else.

I came down here [in 1977] when Elvis died. I've been a legitimate groupie. Never did I think I'd live in Memphis. Melba's from Cleveland; I'm from Chicago. I thought I'd end up somewhere in the Big Ten. But we were both tired of snow. Before moving here, I was warned about traffic and graffiti. Me, coming from Philadelphia! The longer we lived in Memphis, the more we've loved it.

When I came here, Frank Broyles was at Arkansas, Doug Dickey was at Tennessee, Mike Slive was C-USA commissioner. They're all gone. It's been a long time.

When you took over the U of M athletic department in February 1996, there was no such thing as FedExForum, no such thing as a Bowl Championship Series, and John Calipari was coaching the University of Massachusetts. It's a different world now.

[Mayor] Willie Herenton told me in one of our first meetings [in the late 1990s], "I'm gonna build an access road off of East Parkway to the Liberty Bowl." Obviously, Willie didn't get it done. But now, Tiger Lane is the result. The sheds are down, the barns are down. It's so different. The Finch Center had just been completed when I got here. Now we take it for granted. All we had at the Park Avenue campus was a locker room and a weight room, so we've added a lot.

One of my charges when I got here was community involvement, and I think we've come a long way on that.

You came to Memphis from Philadelphia. How do you see the Tiger fan base, as compared with others (at Temple or Miami-Ohio)? Is there a certain brand of Tiger fan?

There's more passion here. Peaks and valleys. Temple had a good niche of fans but not anything like this. Memphis basketball is unique. At the Big East meetings, [Notre Dame coach] Mike Brey told me, "I'm looking forward to playing in Memphis. I've heard so much about the game-day atmosphere and fan experience." The A.D. at Boise State said it was a big splash when it was announced we'd made the Big East. [The Tigers will be playing the Broncos in basketball, though Boise State is joining the Big East solely in football.]

What excites Memphis fans the most — and what makes them angriest?

Basketball, no question. But the most excited I've seen our fan base since the Final Four [in 2008] was the Big East announcement. Before, when we couldn't get into the Big East, [booster] Alan Graf would tell me that not only am I the cause but I'm also the cause of world hunger! Now, I'm getting more plaudits than I deserve.

The most negative element was about the lack of BCS affiliation. But when [football coach] Tommy [West] and John [Calipari] were both winning, it wasn't that bad. There have been ups and downs but nothing [negative] that's been extended.

The athletic director at a large university is a magnet for criticism, no matter how successful. How have you managed (or processed) the slings and arrows from alumni and fans?

I thought, coming from Philadelphia, that Memphis media would not be a big deal. We had pretty good coverage in Philadelphia [at Temple], but it was diluted. It got intense but nothing like it does here. For a while there, we were the biggest city in the country without a [major] pro team. The Tigers were it. Early on, I thought, this is a little different.

I'm not one of those guys who says, "Oh, that doesn't bother me." Of course it does. Before I was an athletic director, I was a football coach. And you get thick-skinned. I've always been confident in what we were doing. We've had a plan. I've felt like the criticism goes with the territory. Melba has been a great ally. If I get too cocky, she tends to talk me down. And if I'm in the dumps, she picks me up.

You've been a remarkable fund-raiser. In 1996, the athletic department was receiving less than $2 million in annual giving. In 2011, that figure was $7.2 million. The athletic budget in 1996 was $14 million. Today it's $38 million. There are more than 40 members of the Ambassador's Club (donors of at least $500,000). All this in a dreadful economy the last four years. What's the secret?

I copied the Ambassador's Club from Southern Cal [minimum donation of $250,000]. I was at Eastern Illinois University, and we had an endowment program. We had a stadium project at the time. Then we did it at Miami-Ohio and at Temple.

The first two donors I got were Mike Rose and Fred Smith. I told [then university president] Lane Rawlins, and he asked me if we could ever get to six. I didn't know anybody else. Early on, people were intimidated by Rose and Smith. I'd tell other people who was in the Ambassador's Club, and they'd say, "Get real." By 1998, we got it up to eight.

This was an opportunity to really make a difference and move forward. In 1996, I didn't appreciate the enthusiasm of SEC schools. Sports are important in the Big Ten and Big East, but it's life and death in the SEC. I wanted to do something here in the heart of SEC country. It became a group of people who really cared. I was concerned that it would become an elitist group. We were struggling [in the late 1990s], and I told people, "We need you now more than ever." It continues to grow.

So-called non-revenue sports have flourished under your watch. Women's soccer reached the top 10 last fall, and men's golf played in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 24 years. How important is this kind of success to an athletic department?

This is my 33rd year as an athletic director. Early on, I developed a mantra: Whether it's football, fencing, or field hockey, it's someone's son or daughter competing. From a financial standpoint, it's the only flaw in Title IX. It's absolutely the right way to go, but they didn't figure out how to expense it.

We focus on basketball and football. In my world, you have football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and fund-raising year-round. But we have 18 sports here, and I feel good about them. Every sport has been improved, either fiscally or with facilities, since I've been here.

Tiger student-athletes achieved an average GPA of 3.1 last fall and 3.0 this spring. Is this an important part of your legacy?

When I got here, the NCAA didn't publish graduation rates. But our rate [for athletes] was in the low 30 percent. Now, we're in the 60 percent range. I feel good about where we are. The NCAA has raised the bar. We've gone from two to seven full-time academic employees. Bottom line: You've got to go to class. When you have to ask someone for a dollar, it's a lot easier when you're graduating your athletes.

I tell our athletes that, except for golf, your glory years are right now. You won't get any higher. Some of them may play in the pros, but I tell them that if any of them are playing their sport [for a living] after age 30, they're a freak. Every time you speak, you tell someone what kind of education you have. And someday, you'll be at a cocktail party when someone asks you where you got your degree. You want to be able to tell them, "I got my degree from the University of Memphis." You'll make four times as much with a degree as you will without.

The story of Larry Finch's dismissal is an ugly one: that he was fired next to a concession stand in The Pyramid. Can you clarify what happened, and share your view of Finch's standing in Memphis sports history?

That was my first year here, and, in hindsight, I probably listened to too many people tell me what needed to happen. Larry and I met here [in my office in 1996], and he told me he didn't want to coach anymore. Our plan was to announce his retirement in the summer, that he would retire after the next [1996-97] season. Bob Huggins at Cincinnati was going to present him with a rocking chair.

Then he came back and said he didn't want to quit. So we canceled the farewell tour. The next spring, we had a meeting with his attorney, Ted Hansom, in a room at the Pyramid. Everything was agreed to. But Larry wanted to go see the players and his family. Then we had the press conference.

The popcorn stand — we went there to exchange the papers, some of which Larry had. That's when people saw us. I think Larry got pressured by friends to keep coaching. He told me he was tired, that he didn't want to do it anymore. That was in the spring of 1996.

I always talk about class, dignity, and style. That was Larry. I didn't realize the impact he had on race relations in Memphis until I got here. He was the first person to take me to Orange Mound.

The Derrick Rose affair is thorny, to say the least. Is that missing Final Four banner a significant blemish or an unwarranted penalty?

I think it's unwarranted. All I know is what Derrick said. I'm comfortable in my skin, because we went through the NCAA clearing house twice. [Johnson is limited when it comes to publicly speaking on the case until August, when a probation period ends.] No one knows, to this day, that he didn't take the test. Our system is innocent until proven guilty; this was backwards.

Looking back, was there anything you could have done differently in the recruitment of Rose that might have changed things?

The truth is, everybody relies on the clearing house. I asked Derrick — he was here with his brother — surely you're not going pro? [laughs] I said, it's just you and me now: Did you take the test? And he said yes. Maybe he didn't. But we don't know that. The process, to me, was not right.

The football program is not as strong today as it was when you arrived. The DeAngelo Williams years were a joy, but the Liberty Bowl is nearly empty on fall Saturdays. Can you reflect on what's needed for the football program to gain traction?

Tommy [West] proved you can win here. Obviously, it didn't work out with Larry [Porter]. I thought that would be a home run. There was a culmination of things, and the program was set back a bit. If it wasn't set back, we wouldn't have made a coaching change. We've always tried to do things for the football program, because it's one of the big spokes in the wheel. Football has to be successful, because it's what drives the [Big East] television money.

When you don't win, it's hard to say, "We're doing everything we can." The one major hurdle we've eliminated is not being in the BCS. They can't use that against us anymore. The first Ambassador's Club money was used to build the football facility on the Park Avenue campus. I've had Lou Holtz come in here twice. He's amazed. Nobody believes we have four practice fields.

We were on a good roll [under West], and a lot of that was Tommy's persuasiveness. We're always among the top third of Conference USA in terms of coaches' salaries. But when you're not winning, you look for things. I've always thought the combination of our city and our campus would be attractive [to recruits]. I mean, Southern Cal is in Watts. It's hard, being right in the middle of SEC country.

Justin Fuente is a young, apparently driven football coach. What impression has he made on you since his hiring last winter?

The thing I like is that they did at TCU what we're trying to do here. I always evaluate a coach based on whether I'd want him to talk with my daughter or my son. I like the fact that he has a family of his own; puts things in perspective. There is no magic wand, but I'm impressed with his work ethic and organizational skills.

The hiring of Josh Pastner to succeed John Calipari was shocking, even to Tiger basketball insiders. He's won a lot of games but none yet in the NCAA tournament. Is he the right coach, long-term, for this program?

I think so. Because of what John had done, I felt like I needed to investigate every possibility. Josh was on my radar screen for two reasons. John had come here [a year earlier] and asked for a $200,000 salary for an assistant basketball coach. After I got up off the floor, I asked him, "Are we bringing in Red Auerbach?" He said Josh was special. He was born to coach basketball.

And I called Jim Livengood, the athletic director at Arizona. He told me Josh was a special guy. In 2009 [a year later], Livengood called me and asked to talk to Josh — to bring him back. That got me thinking more about Josh. The other candidates I talked to, they just didn't fit the niche.

I called Fred Smith. I just liked Josh. I knew he was young, but his background is incredible. People said he can't be the way he is: no drinking, no swearing. But he is. He needs to get deeper into the NCAA tournament. I think the Big East will help with recruiting.

Do you have a favorite sports moment over your tenure at the U of M?

I'll never forget the pep rally in San Antonio [for the Final Four]. It was a sea of blue. Spectacular. The pep rally in New Orleans for the 2003 bowl game — that was really special. [The football program] had been down so long.

A favorite athlete?

I never really thought about that. I didn't realize when I got here how good Tamika Whitmore and LaTonya Johnson were. [Whitmore and Johnson each went on to careers in the WNBA.] They came in here to see me and signed a card that I still have. Really classy people. If there's an athlete in my office, it's usually because there's a problem. That's what I miss about coaching. I miss those relationships.

at the press conference to introduce your successor, Tom Bowen, you said it's important that "Whatever you do, finish strong." Can you summarize your finish at the U of M?

I went to Miami-Ohio in 1989 to interview. [Michigan coach] Bo Schembechler was there. Ara Parseghian was there. Paul Brown was there. Weeb Ewbank was there. I think the only reason I got the job was that I was the only finalist who was not a Miami alum.

Bo and I stayed in touch, because much of what I've done, I copied from Ann Arbor. He always told me, when it's fourth down and goal to go, don't ever quit. I don't care what the score is. And Bo told me to stay current. He said Woody Hayes [at Ohio State] didn't stay current. I'm big on attitude. I believe you can alter your life by altering your attitude. I've been very fortunate.

Plans for retirement?

I told Tom [Bowen], I won't call him, but I'll be around. I'll be here if he needs me. I still help with fund-raising, though that's in pretty good shape. We'll spend most of July in Destin. I want to make sure I'm gone as he gets into the flow of things. I'll be back in the fall. We'll keep our home here.

Final question: Will the last man to have a hair out of place be Jimmy Johnson or R.C. Johnson?

If it's not me, I'm sick to my stomach. If we win a national championship, I'll let him tussle my hair.

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