Take the adjectives hard-nosed, no-nonsense and stern, string them with the noun taskmaster and you have the elements of a truthful description of legendary LeMoyne-Owen coach Jerry C. Johnson, if you then add one more adjective – beloved.
Driven by their love and respect, hundreds of people came together at the Holiday Inn at the University of Memphis for a celebration of the legacy and impact of the iconic former Magicians basketball coach on Wednesday night.
And while they didn’t need any extra incentive, Johnson’s 100th birthday was the backdrop for the evening’s tribute.
“I want to personally thank coach for helping to mold me, shape me and make me the man I am today,” said Dr. Willie W. Herenton, the first African American elected mayor of Memphis and one of many former LeMoyne-Owen players mentored and influenced by Johnson.
A succession of speakers spoke glowingly and sincerely about Johnson, who coached 46 years at LeMoyne-Owen College and still is the only coach to win a National Championship in the state of Tennessee. His career features 821 wins and earned him a spot in the SIAC Basketball Hall of Fame.
The highest profile person in Memphis basketball right now – Penny Hardaway – was selected to introduce Johnson.
“I’m so humbled,” said Hardaway, the new head basketball coach at the University of Memphis, where he starred before reaching All-Star status in the NBA. “I’m just here to learn. I’m so appreciative to even be asked to be the keynote speaker tonight.”
Current Magicians basketball coach William Anderson introduced Hardaway, comparing his trajectory to Johnson’s.
“A lot of people don’t know coach (Johnson) won state championships in North Carolina before he took the job here at LeMoyne,” Anderson said. “My friend (Hardaway) has had to travel that same road. He’s won multiple state (high school) championships, and we’re looking forward to him to do what coach Johnson did and bring a (Division-I) championship to the city of Memphis.”
Hardaway, who led East High school to three consecutive state championships, compared Johnson to his longtime friend, Desmond Merriweather. He noted that the room was filled with people positively impacted by Johnson when all Johnson had set out to do was coach basketball.
“Coach came to LeMoyne-Owen College, he thought he was coming to be a coach, but he ended up being a father, counselor, friend and you see that tonight,” Hardaway said.
Addressing the crowd, Johnson shared a memory of Hardaway as a high school phenom. When he got word of the impressive star guard at Treadwell High School, Johnson quickly took a trip to the school, learning that Hardaway had already committed to Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis).
“I didn’t worry about it,” Johnson said. “I figured there were other good players in the Memphis area, so I didn’t bother Hardaway.”
The Hall of Famer spoke for about 20 minutes about his family and many of decisions he made in his career. Johnson revealed that he turned down an offer to join the Big Ten conference in its opening days, choosing to stay at LeMoyne because of his family.
Among those in attendance were several members of LOC’s 1975 National Champions, who reflected on their journey with Johnson. Most notably, a rocky trip to Pennsylvania where they would eventually play in the championship game.
“The shuttle flight, it was overloaded and just by God’s grace we made it,” said Larry Lewis, a member of the championship team. “All of us were scared. We got out of there, kissed the ground and refused to get back on it.”
A theme that linked those who had basketball experience with Johnson was his mentality as a coach. A mentality that Johnson instilled in his players.
Hardaway credited a large part of his basketball growth to the on-court battles he had with players coached by Johnson.
“I feel like I even played at LeMoyne because from the years ’86 to ’92 most of the guys that played at LeMoyne helped mold my game to get me better as a basketball player,” Hardaway said.
“He was hard-nosed, no nonsense,” Lewis said. “Coach Johnson was a stern taskmaster.”
At the conclusion of the ceremony, people took to the celebration of Johnson to the dance floor. While he wasn’t on the dance floor, the coach still can move around to this day.
As he transitioned into the closing moments of his speech, Johnson made one thing clear.
“I can still drive,” he said.