Recognized as a legend among legends and widely revered as a community father, Coach Jerry C. Johnson died at home early Sunday morning. He was 102.
“Coach Johnson is going to be deeply missed,” said the Rev. Melvin Watkins, pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood, where Mr. Johnson was a long-time member. “He impacted countless lives, not only of his basketball players over the years. But young men and boys who came in contact with him were touched by Coach Johnson. He made men of us.”
Mr. Johnson, the athletic director and head coach of the men’s basketball team at LeMoyne-Owen College for 46 years (1959-2005), retired with one of the winningest records in college sports history. He continued holding court with former players, who had become part of his extended family.
During his career, Mr. Johnson and his LOC players racked 821 wins. In 1975, he became the first African-American coach to win the NCAA Division III Championship, making LOC the first HBCU to hold the honor. LOC remains the only men’s college basketball team in Memphis and the state of Tennessee to win an NCAA title.
LOC men’s basketball coach William Anderson said he learned of Mr. Johnson’s death when got a telephone call on Sunday morning.
“I was over there just Thursday,” said Anderson. “We talked about a range of topics. Of course, basketball, memories and just life issues that Coach was always willing to share about.
“He was still sharp; his mind was quick. He had a great sense of humor and he was very much aware of what was going on around him.”
“Coach Johnson,” said Anderson, “is the reason I am head coach today. …He first made me the graduate assistant coach for two seasons after I finished college. Then, I was given the opportunity to become the women’s head basketball coach.
“And then after Coach Johnson retired, and Coach David “Smokey” Gaines got ill, I became the men’s head coach. But it was Coach Johnson who put me on the path to success.”
UofM head basketball coach Penny Hardaway spoke of Mr. Johnson during the Tigers’ post-game media conference Sunday evening.
“Rest in heaven to legendary coach Jerry Johnson. He was on my mind today coming to the game; a legend in the game,” said Hardaway.
“I told him I wanted to be like him. All the nuggets that he has passed on to me will stay with me forever. … He was 102 and lived a beautiful life. He was driving a car until 101 years old, that is amazing within itself. I want to tell his family they are in my prayers. His legacy will live on forever.”
Clint Jackson, LOC’s athletic director, played on Mr. Johnson’s ’75 national championship team.
“He has impacted many of his former players’ lives,” said Jackson. “He instilled in me that to truly lead others, you must start with the end in mind, be strategic, be attentive to details and to possess the skills to get others to do what you need them to do, even when they don’t want to do sit.
“This has served me well since sitting his organization and administration course in 1975. I am forever grateful and he will be truly missed.”
Mr. Johnson’s caregiver found him at 4:30 a.m. Sunday when she went in to check on him.
“Mr. Johnson loved God and he loved his church,” said Watkins. “He was still active in his old age, very kind and always wanted to know how he could help. He was driving well over 100.
“He would come up to the church and I would say, ‘How did you get here, Mr. Johnson?’ And he would tell me, ‘I drove myself.’ We are going to miss him at Mt. Vernon.”
For many, Mr. Johnson affectionately was “Coach” and they referred to him with reverence. He coached eight players who played in the NBA, as well as numerous college, high school and junior high coaches who played for him at LOC. Johnson also coached former City of Memphis Mayor Dr. Willie W. Herenton and Shelby County Commissioner Mickell M. Lowery are among his former players.
Among his many achievements and awards, Mr. Johnson:
- Ranked first in wins among active coaches at the time of his retirement. Only six coaches in NCAA history had over 800 career wins at the time.
- Volunteer State Athletic Conference Coach of the Year (1971-4)
- Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Coach of the Year (1999, 2000, 2005)
- Fayetteville State Athletics Hall of Fame (1991)
- Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tennessee Coach’s Hall of Fame (1995)
- City of Memphis Lifetime Achievement Award (2005)
- City of Memphis Honorary Jerry C. Johnson Street (2005)
- Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame (2006)
- Memphis Sports Hall of Fame inaugural Class (2019)
Mr. Johnson is survived by his two children, Dr. Jerry C. Johnson Jr. and Wandra Johnson Haywood (Samuel), six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending. R.S. Lewis Funeral Home has charge.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the JCJ Foundation at: www.jcjfoundation.org, or mailed to:
Memphis, TN 38101