The history of Memphis, Tennessee, basketball is a lot like the city itself — blue-collar moves with a decidedly soulful groove. Grit and grind. The occasional sounds. You know the vibes.
Out of that unheralded basketball mecca, there are some diamonds. One of those shining beacons — maybe the brightest of them all — was legendary LeMoyne-Owen College (LOC) coach Jerry C. Johnson, who died Jan. 24 at the age of 102.
When people think of basketball wizards, they might think of former UCLA coach John Wooden. They should also consider the spell that Johnson cast as the leader of LOC’s Magicians.
After an incomparable run as the head basketball and football coach at Ridgeview High School in Hickory, North Carolina, Johnson took his talents further west to LeMoyne-Owen. During the course of his 46-year tenure, he won 821 games, a magic number considering that when he retired in 2005, only six NCAA men’s basketball coaches had reached that mark. He guided the 27-5 Magicians to the NCAA Division III men’s basketball title in 1975, a 57-54 win over Glassboro State College, now Rowan University. That distinction is important because it is among the first NCAA men’s basketball championships – Winston-Salem State (1967) and Morgan State (1974) were the others – won by a historically Black college and university (HBCU) and the only men’s basketball championship won by a team from Tennessee.
How magical was Johnson, who was not only a coach but administrator and mentor? It takes another coach — a magic man, if you will — to tell you.
“It was an honor to be in your presence, coach,” University of Memphis men’s basketball coach and former Orlando Magic great Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway wrote on Instagram. “The knowledge that you passed along will always be with me. You are gone but will never be forgotten. Your legacy will live forever. Rest well in Heaven Coach.”
Hardaway, who was the keynote speaker at Johnson’s 100th birthday celebration in 2018, added the hashtag #legendsneverdie to the end of the post.
Johnson’s connections to LeMoyne-Owen and to the foundation of the game itself are profound. He wasn’t just a basketball mind — he coached swimming and track and field. His greatness wasn’t just limited to the playing field, as he was also LOC’s athletic director for many years.
Johnson learned the game from John McLendon, who was not only the first Black head coach at a predominantly white institution but the first Black head coach in any pro sport. McLendon, in turn, learned the game from the inventor of basketball, James Naismith.
He was beloved by the Memphis community and respected throughout the HBCU community. As it related to opponents, that respect was forged through years of in-conference competition.
Ronnie Spry, the former men’s basketball coach at Paine College in Augusta, Georgia, reflected on those Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference battles during the 1980s and ’90s.
“Coach always had an outstanding program. … Anytime you played LeMoyne-Owen, it was going to be a tough game,” Spry said. “They were big, they were physical and they did not like to lose.”
Spry, himself an accomplished coach who won more than 500 games in his career, also reflected on the HBCU coaches of Johnson’s caliber.
“When you look at the big picture, when you go back and look at how many [HBCU] coaches got an opportunity to coach at premier colleges as a head coach. … You may have one, or two, or three, but rarely do they get the same respect or recognition that they truly deserve,” Spry said.
“When you go back and look at how many [HBCU] coaches got an opportunity to coach at premier colleges as a head coach. … You may have one, or two, or three, but rarely do they get the same respect or recognition that they truly deserve.” – Former Paine College coach Ronnie Spry
He mentioned a host of HBCU coaching greats, such as McClendon, Ben Jobe and Winston-Salem State’s Clarence “Big House” Gaines, whose styles and strategies influenced the game.
“The thing that some people fail to realize is that when they see coaches at Division I schools at an event like the [Nike] Peach Jam, folks gravitate toward those coaches, not realizing that some of those coaches learned from the knowledge of a Jerry Johnson,” Spry said.
Ultimately, Johnson should be remembered for his approach to the game and the impact that it had on everyone around him.
“He was very knowledgeable, and down-to-earth,” Spry said. He was very smart, which was the impressive thing he showed as an administrator.
“He could have coached at any level if given the opportunity.”