Bob Johnson, Courtesy Emory & Henry Athletics

From Emory & Henry to the Big Dance: The man behind college basketball’s unlikeliest coaching tree

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For six months after he took his first head coaching job, Bob Johnson lived in a haunted old gym.

There, on the Emory & Henry campus, 700 miles away from his wife and two children, at a tiny school in a tinier town tucked away in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, surrounded by dairy farms and lonely roads, the Vietnam veteran and son of a former four-star Army general launched a coaching career that would last three decades and produce as many current Division I head coaches as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, two of whom will hear their names called on Selection Sunday.

He never left that school, the one that never had a basketball history to speak of when he arrived, the one that had 13 straight losing seasons when he started spending his nights with the spirit of a confederate soldier.

Johnson died at Emory & Henry, two years after he retired and two days before his 63rd birthday, leaving a legacy that stretches far beyond his little corner of Appalachia and the confines of what we call family.


Jamion Christian of Mount St. Mary’s (Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Jamion Christian is the baby of the Emory & Henry family.

He won’t turn 35 until after this year’s Final Four and looks more like one of his players than a head coach that is taking Mount St. Mary’s to the NCAA tournament for the second time in four years.

Christian got his start at Emory & Henry the day after he graduated from the Mount. At 22 years old, less than a month after finishing his career as a Division I basketball player, Christian’s parents were helping him unpack in the apartment he was moving into on campus. Johnson, his 57-year old boss with two knee replacements and a couple wins over cancer already on his résumé, appeared at the top of the stairs with Christian’s mattress on his back.

That’s who Johnson was. He was demanding as all hell, but he was never going to ask his staff or his players to do something he wouldn’t do himself. There was the time he didn’t think his team was doing medicine ball slides hard enough, so he grabbed the 25-pound ball, held it above his head and threw 20 minutes on the clock, forcing his team to watch as he bettered college athletes two decades his junior.

He was also the toughest son of a gun in every room he walked into. Mike Young, who has spent the last 15 seasons as the head coach at Wofford, drove from Spartanburg, S.C., to Bristol, Va., when Johnson’s first bout with cancer forced him to have a kidney removed. Young was in Johnson’s hospital room when Marcy, his nurse, came in to check on him and let him know there was a buzzer he was allowed to press if he needed anything.

“Marcy,” Johnson said, “there’s not another thing I need tonight. But tomorrow, after my surgery, I might be uncomfortable, and I’m going to hit this buzzer and I am going to expect you to be there immediately. If you’re not, Marcy, I’m going to throw this f—ing phone through that window over there.”

They all had a good laugh at that, Marcy included.

“But she was there,” Young said, “when he rang that buzzer.”

Johnson was back at practice five days later, which only added to the mystique of his persona. He loved regaling whomever would listen with stories of his time in Vietnam. One day, when he was at lunch with his assistant, current Radford Athletic Director Robert Lineburg, he told the tale of how he could kill a man six different ways with a spoon. That story got out, and for the rest of his tenure at Emory & Henry, students would hide their spoons whenever Johnson walked through the cafeteria.

But as tough as he was, the people that knew Johnson best knew there was so much more to him. He was a former U.S. Army Ranger that survived a year of heavy combat in the jungles of southeast Asia. He coached hard and his teams played harder. He was an intimidating presence, until you got to know him.

Nathan Davis is now the head coach at Bucknell, taking the Bison to this year’s NCAA tournament in just his second season running a Division I program. Before he took a job as an assistant at Emory & Henry he was an all-conference player at ODAC rival Randolph-Macon. Before a critical league game against Emory & Henry, Davis was walking off the court and heading into his locker room with a teammate when he was hit in the back with a balled up piece of paper.

It had been thrown by Bob Johnson.

“Come here,” Johnson said. “You two look too sick to play today.”

“It was surreal. Who does that?” Davis recalled in an interview last month. “It was so random and funny. At the time, everyone knew he’s a Vietnam veteran, he’s intense, his teams play so hard. He’s an intimidating figure, and an hour before the game he’s doing this? It’s pretty funny. We were like ‘Who is this guy?’ It was a side to him not a lot of people knew he had.”

Johnson had a way of connecting with people from all walks of life. From the cafeteria workers to the janitors to the maintenance men, he knew the name of everyone on campus. He never walked into the lunch room through the front door. He’d come in the back, swapping stories and handing out t-shirts and asking the cooks about their kids.

“He just really appreciated everybody who contributed,” Sherry Johnson said. “He taught that to these kids. They left knowing they need to respect everybody.”


Nathan Davis of Bucknell (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Bob and Sherry Johnson were friendly in high school. They went on a few dates, she visited him at West Point and, after he was kicked out, at Dickinson, but nothing serious ever developed between them until Bob came home from Vietnam.

“I ran into him at a party,” Sherry said, still chuckling at the story five decades later. “He drank all my date’s scotch then he took me home. And that was the beginning of our dating relationship.”

Bob’s father was Harold K. Johnson, a survivor of the Bataan Death March who would go on to become a four-star general and, from 1964-68, the Chief of Staff of the United States Army. That was enough to get Bob into West Point. As the story goes, he was cut from the basketball team by Bob Knight for throwing a behind-the-back pass and, not too long after, kicked out of school after refusing to rat out a friend that had been accused of cheating.

He would finish up his college degree at Dickinson before heading off to Vietnam, where he became a U.S. Army Ranger and a platoon leader in the 101st airborne infantry division. Seven times during his tour of duty, he was in a helicopter that was shot down, those landings so violent that the toll on his knees cut his time in the service was cut short.

He would return to Northern Virginia, and, after marrying Sherry in 1973, he spent four years coaching at Boy’s Clubs and high schools in Washington, D.C. Eventually, he landed a spot as an assistant at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He spent three years there, and two weeks before the start of the 1980 season, he got word that he had been tabbed to take over the Emory & Henry program.

“I have good news and bad news,” Sherry recalls her husband saying. “The good news is I’m taking you back to Virginia. The bad news is you’re six hours from Mommy.”

The Johnsons had two kids by that point. They couldn’t afford two mortgages, so Sherry stayed back in New York with the kids while Bob moved to Emory, Virginia, to begin his career and find a house the family could afford all while living in an abandoned gym, spending more time chasing off ghosts than chasing around his children.

“Martin Brock was the name of the old gym and there were supposed to be ghosts in there,” Sherry said, chuckling. “It was an experience for him.”

“Eventually, he found a house and so when the kids and I came down, we moved in and he got out of the gym. He lived there for a good six months.”


Mike Young of the Wofford Terriers (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Mike Young was the first.

When Johnson accepted the Emory & Henry head coaching job in 1980, it was, as Young described it, “the worst job in America.” The school hadn’t posted a winning season in 13 years and the program was hours and hours away from anywhere that could be considered a hotbed of high school talent.

“When he got down here nobody knew where the basketballs were,” Sherry said. “Literally. There was no history, no tradition, nothing.”

No hope either, it seemed.

“In the early 80s, the worst basketball in America was played in southwest Virginia,” Young said. “You had to get to Roanoke and east [to find players]. It was such a discount to get in-state kids, but Roanoke was two hours east. Then to get to Richmond or Northern Virginia, you’re passing by a lot of quality schools to get to good old Emory. You come off that exit off I-81 and there’s a big dairy farm. For a city guy, that’s not what you lie awake at night dreaming about as a college destination.”

That, however, was great news for Young, whose father had attended Emory & Henry.

“[Johnson] was in the market for bad players,” he said, “and I was a great fit.”

Young, who was a member of Johnson’s second recruiting class, became the first player to last four years with the hard-coaching Johnson, who rewarded him with a job as an assistant after graduation. That apprenticeship was the greatest initiation into the coaching ranks that a kid could ask for, in part because Young had to do everything.

He washed the practice gear, recruited, fundraised, connected with alumni, watched film, drew-up game-plans, made sure the vans were gassed up for road trips, found places they could afford to eat after games.

Everything.

Division III programs typically have just a single assistant coach, and at Emory & Henry, Young earned just $5,000 a year for the work.

“I absolutely loved it,” Young said.

Courtesy Emory & Henry Athletics

Not only did he learn how to run a basketball program, but Johnson ensured that Young learned as much as possible about basketball at the same time. At one point soon after Young was hired, Johnson shipped him off to Nashville for a week just to spend time with legendary Lipscomb head coach Don Meyer. He hung out in the offices, he sat in on practices, he even parked Meyer’s car during his daily lunch runs to Captain D’s. Jimmy Allen, Army’s head coach, was sent on that same trip. Nathan Davis, too.

After two seasons in the Emory & Henry program, Young left for Radford, where he spent a year under Oliver Purnell before becoming an assistant at Wofford. Young still hasn’t left. He spent 13 years as an assistant with the Terriers before becoming their head coach in 2002.

Two seasons were all you were afforded by Johnson. You entered the program, you gave him everything you had and he taught you everything he knows. Then he would send you on your way.

He did this at the detriment to his program. Continuity is key at any level, but particularly in Division III, where budgets are small, scholarships don’t exist and the athletes compete because of their love for the game and their loyalty to their teammates. Putting that much time and energy into molding a kid into a capable assistant coach is not an easy endeavor, not when the process begins anew every 24 months.

But that’s the way Johnson worked.

“There are a lot of head coaches that don’t want to let go of their assistants because they’ve just got to train somebody new,” Sherry said. “Bob’s outlook was you’ve got two years with me, after two years you need to go learn something from somebody else. He loved moving his assistants along.”

Seeing the people he developed, both coaches and players, thrive in their post-Emory & Henry career meant more to him than wins and losses, and he was as competitive as they come. One of the first tasks he required of his assistants was to call every one of his former assistants. He didn’t have the weight to get anyone a job, but he had a network that could be worked. Jimmy Allen, who just finished his first season as head coach at Army, played for Johnson for four years before becoming his assistant. When his two years were up, he went to Navy, where he helped get Davis on staff after Davis left Emory & Henry. Allen left Navy to join Young’s staff at Wofford when Young was named head coach.

Davis eventually left Navy and went to Colgate, where he spent one season working for Emmett Davis before taking over as the head coach at his alma mater. When Nathan Davis left, Emmett Davis hired another Emory & Henry product, Jon Coffman, the head coach of the Fort Wayne team that upset then-No. 3 Indiana in November.

Christian’s rise, however, is the most emblematic of Johnson’s steadfast refusal to allow his protégés to accept anything less than what they deserved. After leaving Emory & Henry, Christian got a job as an assistant at William & Mary, a job he got through Nathan Davis. After Christian’s first season at William & Mary, in 2007, Johnson decided that he would finally step down as Emory & Henry’s head coach. Christian, who was 25 years old at the time, interviewed for the job and was told that the position was his.

Until Johnson weighed in.

“I think you have bigger things ahead of you,” Johnson told Christian. “I’m not going to hire you.”

Christian believed him. He spent three more years at William & Mary before accepting a job as an assistant on Shaka Smart’s staff at VCU. Nine months later, Mount St. Mary’s was looking for a new head coach.

In 2012, at just 29 years old, Christian became one of the youngest head coaches in college basketball.


Jon Coffman of IPFW (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Bob Johnson wasn’t just a basketball coach. He had two different tenures as a football coach at Emory & Henry, he ran the athletic department and he was a professor at the university, teaching everything from Western Civilization to Great Books to Physical Education.

“He’s the most well-read man I’ve ever met,” Sherry said.

He made it a point with his players and his assistants to develop them as men, not just as coaches. “From Day One, we met as a team and coach is talking about how you act in the classroom, how you do things, how you carry yourself, how you treat people,” Allen said. “You’re not going to miss a class. It wasn’t about basketball. It was about you as a person.”

He challenged his coaches intellectually. It wasn’t uncommon for him to tell his assistant to drop whatever they were doing, read a 300 page book and meet him on his deck for beers that night to discuss it.

Coffman graduated from Washington & Lee, a white-collar school in Northern Virginia and ODAC rival that Johnson not-so-affectionately referred to as “cake-eaters”, and spent two years at a money management firm in San Francisco before getting into coaching. He sent out 250 résumés and Johnson was one of three people to respond. Coffman traveled to Virginia for a two-day interview, the majority of which saw the pair “hanging out on his back deck in the mountains of Virginia,” Coffman said. “I can’t even count how many oil cans of Fosters we put down, talking everything from politics to education to his army background to basketball.”

Johnson didn’t want people on his staff that had no interest in the world outside of basketball.

“He challenged you to go find new ideas,” Allen said.

For Davis, it was Johnson’s ability to balance his personal and professional lives that stuck with him. Davis had never been around a coach that was married. He had never learned from someone that put everything he had into coaching while ensuring that he was a good father and a good husband at the same time.

“That was important, understanding that it was OK to balance your life and it was OK to have kids and to want to spend time with them,” Davis, who is married with a young son, said. “You could do this job and do those things, and that was very valuable to me. It’s something I carry as much as anything.”

Johnson had a way of pushing people without pushing them too far. He could lead without being suffocating. He inspired loyalty because the people in his program knew he would do everything he possibly could to help them. His door was always open, and when he didn’t have time, he made time. “He didn’t make you feel like he cared,” Allen said. “He showed you he cared.”

“It was,” Coffman said, “like getting a master’s in leadership.”


The Emory & Henry family dinner (courtesy Jon Coffman)

Bob Johnson died on Aug. 22nd, 2009, finally succumbing to the cancer that had riddled his body for so many years.

He never got a chance to see Young reach any of his four NCAA tournaments. He never got to see Christian become a head coach at 29 years old. He never got to see Coffman get hired at Fort Wayne three years after he was out of a job, debating whether or not it was worth it to continue in the coaching business. He never saw Nathan Davis thrive as the head coach at Bucknell, or Allen get hired by Army, the university that asked Johnson to leave four decades earlier.

But his family did.

Sherry and Johnson’s son, Casey, were in attendance when Allen’s Army team erased a 25-point deficit in the final 12 minutes at Navy. They went to UNC Greensboro a couple years back when Coffman’s team played there. Sherry still hosts parties at the house she and Johnson shared during Emory & Henry’s homecoming weekend. The group still gets together every year for an Emory & Henry dinner at the Final Four. Every one of the five Division I head coaches that Johnson spawned calls one of the five their best friend in the business, or their mentor in the business, or the most important person in the growth of their career.

And that is despite the fact that their time at Emory & Henry never overlapped.

Young was gone by the time Allen arrived on campus. Allen played against Nathan Davis and Jon Coffman, but he was off to Navy by the time Davis was hired. Coffman was hired to replace Davis. Christian entered the fray four years after Coffman left.

Johnson spent 27 years as a head coach. He won 374 games, he reached the NCAA tournament five times and the Sweet 16 twice. He had three players get named all-americans. The playing floor at Emory & Henry is named Bob Johnson Court. Since 2009, the ODAC memorialized his career by giving out the “Bob Johnson Coach of the Year” award.

But his legacy, the one that Johnson cared about more than anything else in his career, is the Emory & Henry family that he built, a family that extends beyond just those five coaches. Lineburg spent 10 seasons as an assistant at SMU before eventually becoming Radford’s AD. R.J. Spelsberg, who won a Virginia state title in 2016, is one of a myriad of successful high school coaches Johnson mentored.

“He would be so proud,” Sherry said. “All of his assistants would eat with us two times a week, three times a week. We live a mile from campus and they were just part of our family.”

“We still stay in touch and support these kids because they are part of our family.”

Report: Pat Kelsey will not take the UMass job

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Moments before Pat Kelsey was set to be formally introduced as the new head coach at the University of Massachusetts, the school canceled the press conference citing, “unforeseen circumstances.”

According to Jeff Goodman of ESPN, the former Winthrop coach has decided not to accept the job.

Virginia’s Thompson to transfer

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Virginia lost another member of its team Thursday.

The Cavaliers announced Darius Thompson will transfer out of the program, a day after the news of Marial Shayok and Jarred Reuter’s departures.

“Darius Thompson informed me he has decided to play his final season at another school following his graduation from Virginia,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said in a statement released by the school. “Although you never want to see young men transfer, I understand this is part of coaching. Darius, Marial, and Jarred feel it’s in their best interests to pursue other options for the remainder of their college careers.

“I will always appreciate the contributions they made to our program.”

Thompson, who would be immediately eligible as a graduate transfer, began his career at Tennessee before transferring to Charlottesville, where he averaged 5.2 points and 1.8 assists over two seasons. The 6-foot-4 guard shot 44.8 percent from the field and 35.1 percent from 3-point range last season.

Despite the three defections, Virginia returns a number of pieces that contributed to their 23-11 season.

As we look forward, we have a strong nucleus of players returning,” Bennett said, “and I’m excited for their continued development. As a staff, we are focused on finding student-athletes who want to be a part of this program and all the University of Virginia has to offer.”

Georgetown, John Thompson III part ways

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Georgetown has parted ways with head coach John Thompson III, sources confirmed to NBC Sports.

Thompson has been the head coach of the Hoyas for 13 seasons, going 278-151 during his tenure. He won three Big East regular season titles with the program, the last of which came in 2013, and he reached the 2007 Final Four, but in recent years the program has fallen on hard times.

Georgetown confirmed the news Thursday afternoon.

“For thirteen years, he has been one of the elite coaches in college basketball,” Georgetown president John J. DeGioia said in a statement released by the school. “His performance as a coach has been exceptional, and he has served our community with remarkable distinction and integrity, sustaining our commitment to the academic performance of our students and providing them with the very best preparation for their lives beyond the Hilltop.”

Georgetown is 29-36 over the course of the last two seasons and the Hoyas have missed the NCAA tournament in three of the last four years. They’ve failed to make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since that Final Four, losing to five double-digit seeds in their last six NCAA tournament appearances.

Thompson is the son of John Thompson Jr., the Hall of Fame head coach that built the Hoyas into a national power in the 80s and 90s. The University just invested more than $60 million into a renovation of the team’s practice facility which is now named The Thompson Center.

“We are committed to taking the necessary steps to strengthen our program and maintaining the highest levels of academic integrity and national competitiveness,” DeGioia said. “We will work immediately to begin a national search for a new head men’s basketball coach.

“I remain deeply grateful to John for all that he has done on behalf of Georgetown University.”

The news was first reported by CasualHoya.com.

Jeter to transfer from Duke

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A former five-star recruit is hitting the transfer market.

Chase Jeter, a top-20 talent in the Class of 2015, will transfer from Duke, the school announced Thursday.

The 6-foot-10 sophomore could never really crack the rotation with the Blue Devils, playing less than 500 minutes total over two seasons. He averaged 14.9 minutes in 16 appearances this past season.

“Chase has been an outstanding young man in our program for the last two years,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement released by the school. “He has been one of our top academic performers since he arrived on campus. Unfortunately, he was held back this season due to injury. We wish nothing but the absolute best for Chase and his family.”

This past season Jeter dealt with a back injury, and he did not play after Jan. 14.

“I have loved my time at Duke, getting a world-class education and competing alongside my brothers every day,” Jeter said in a statement. “After careful consideration, I decided it would be best for me to transfer to a school closer to home. I’ve made long-lasting relationships here and I want to thank my teammates and coaches for the support they’ve given me over the last two years.”

Jeter, a Las Vegas native, chose Duke in the summer of 2014 over Arizona, UNLV and UCLA.

Feeling the love: Men’s hoops squad toast of South Carolina

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) Sindarius Thornwell knew South Carolina fans would be excited about the team’s Sweet 16 appearance. The response since he has been on campus, though, surprised even him.

As Thornwell walked to the student union after class, he couldn’t take more than a couple of steps without students swarming him for selfies or asking for some tidbit about the win against Duke on Sunday.

“We’re trying to embrace the moment,” Thornwell said Tuesday. “But that was wild.”

Everyone on campus, around Columbia and even the state seem to be savoring every minute. It’s understandable, the Gamecocks haven’t been in the Sweet 16 since 1973.

It’s been a wild ride for the Gamecocks (24-10), who some wondered if they’d even get invited to the NCAA Tournament let alone produce one of the signature moments so far with their 88-81 win over the second-seeded Blue Devi ls in the East Region.

Next up is third seeded Baylor (27-7) on Friday night at Madison Square Garden for the chance to advance.

Coach Frank Martin said he’s gotten more than 1,100 text messages about Sunday night’s win and two or three from people wondering, “So I guess you’re not going to respond?” he joked.

“That’s a good problem to have,” he said.

South Carolina is gaining the attention Gamecock fans have recently showered on the football, baseball or women’s basketball programs.

Steve Spurrier, featuring NFL standouts like defensive end Jadeveon Clowney , receiver Alshon Jeffrey and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, won the Southeastern Conference East Division in 2010 and had three straight 11-2 seasons from 2011-13.

Baseball won back-to-back College World Series under now athletic director Ray Tanner in 2010 and 2011. Thousands turned out for victory parades to the Statehouse when the team returned home.

Most recently, South Carolina’s women’s basketball team, led by new U.S. women’s national team coach Dawn Staley, has gained much of the attention with four straight SEC regular season titles. The Gamecocks have led the women’s game in attendance the past three seasons.

Now, men’s basketball is getting some love.

“We’re happy to be part of that,” sophomore point guard P.J. Dozier said.

There was a time when men’s basketball led the way at South Carolina when New York City native Frank McGuire turned a sleepy program into a national power with a pipeline of NYC kids like John Roche, Tom Owens, Bobby Cremins, Brian Winters and Mike Dunleavy Sr.

McGuire led the Gamecocks to the NCAA round of 16 three straight seasons from 1971-73 – there were just 25 schools involved – and his team was considered the cream of the crop in South Carolina athletic circles.

But McGuire’s touch ran out in the mid-1970s and the Gamecocks have struggled for an identity for more than 40 years.

South Carolina won its only Southeastern Conference crown in 1997, but lost in the NCAAs as a No. 2 seed. The Gamecocks returned to the tournament the next season, that time falling as a No. 3 seed.

The Gamecocks high-water mark until now may be the consecutive NIT crowns won by coach Dave Odom in 2005 and 2006.

Martin and these Gamecocks are out to add another level of success to the program.

The fifth-year coach said that being around Spurrier – “Steve calls me every day,” Martin said – Tanner and Staley make him a better leader and give him examples of building winning cultures.

“I’m a big believer in winning leads to winning,” he said.

An emotional Martin, overcome by his team’s Duke win, told the players in the locker room, “Let’s go win this thing.”

He said Tuesday he wanted his players to know that by beating Duke, they proved they’re good enough to play with anyone left in the field.

Thornwell heard that over and over from friends, family and hundreds of new acquaintances he’s made the past 48 hours.

“We’re just having fun,” he said, “enjoying the game, enjoying every moment.”