It would be an understatement to say that University of Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson has been on the hot seat lately. In fact, with all the flamethrowers that have been spewing fire in the general direction of his posterior region, he probably hasn’t been able to do much sitting at all. Some in the media seem to believe he’s also to blame for the current state of the global economy, the shortcomings of the US healthcare system, and the decision to replace Charlie Sheen with Ashton Kutcher.
The U of M football team is quite possibly in the worst shape it’s ever been; there’s not many who can present a valid argument to the contrary. But Tiger basketball is also enjoying one of the most prolific runs in its history. And over the past 15 years, Johnson has been there to oversee it all.
After reaching the 1984-85 Final Four, then Memphis State enjoyed moderate success under Larry Finch, but after a few years, the program began a slow, steady decline. Amidst a terrible public relations fiasco, Johnson did what most Tiger fans had been screaming for and released Finch from his coaching duties. It was a difficult thing to do, but it has been reported that Finch was on board with the decision because he knew it would be the best way for the university to move forward. After that, the AD hired Tic Price, who had a decent first year by going 17–12, winning the National Division of C–USA and advancing to the NIT, and it appeared that Memphis basketball might be back up on the upswing. The next year, however, saw Price’s team go 13-15, which could only be seen as a step in the wrong direction even though the team was made up mostly of young, inexperienced players. Then, prior to his third season, the coach was let go due to a reported inappropriate involvement with a female student.
At that point, even the most hardcore Tiger basketball fans had started becoming disgruntled. The team was no longer seen as relevant by the national media, and with the games no longer being shown on television, local interest fell to a low it hadn’t seen in quite some time.
Then in 2000, Johnson pulled off something that even the most optimistic of fans could never have expected. After a swirl of rumors, the school announced the hire of former UMASS and NBA Nets coach John Calipari, The news immediately sparked enthusiasm from fans and media members alike, as “Coach Cal” pledged to bring in top notch recruits and compete for national championships. He would deliver on his promises too, as the Tigers would eventually boast consecutive Elite Eight appearances followed by an appearance in the national title game.
Then in 2009, disaster once again struck the basketball program as Calipari announced he was leaving to take the head coaching job at Kentucky. To make things worse, he took virtually his entire coaching staff and the top recruiting class in the country with him. The university was also told that it must forfeit wins from the entire season during which it reached the NCAA championship game because one of the players Calipari recruited had been ruled ineligible.
After a lengthy, publicly ridiculed search for his replacement ended with Memphis unable to land another big name coach, the school had to end up settling for U of M assistant coach Josh Pastner. Johnson offered him the job just as he was about to head to Kentucky to join Cal. The hire ended up being another stellar one for the athletic director, however, as Pastner’s recruiting ability has kept the Tigers at an elite level.
But here are a couple of questions that must be asked. First, is it possible Calipari would have come to Memphis even if Johnson hadn’t pursued him? Knowing Cal’s propensity to manipulate a situation, it might have been his plan all along to use Memphis has a stepping stone on the way to the Kentucky job. And even if that’s not the case, it’s also quite feasible that the only reason Johnson was able to get Calipari to listen to him in the first place was that the two had known each other as rivals in the Atlantic 10 when Johnson was the AD at temple and Cal was the coach at UMASS.
Secondly, should Pastner’s hiring be viewed as blind luck? After all, JP was never even mentioned as a candidate until Johnson failed to land a prestigious name. There were even rumors swirling that the decision to bring the young coach in was ultimately not Johnson’s.
R.C. Johnson inherited a basketball program rich in tradition with a coach who meant more to the university’s sports department than probably anyone else in history. During his tenure, the team began a slide which then forced him to fire that iconic figure. He then brought in someone to run the program who eventually would have to be dismissed for having an affair with a co-ed. He followed that up by hiring a man that brought the program to prosperity but also left it in a state of disarray.
So should Johnson be given credit for the U of M’s recent success in hoops? If he were asked that question right now, there is one answer he’d be sure to provide: At least we’re not talking about football.
Related reading: R.C. Johnson’s bio on the University of Memphis Athletic website: http://www.gotigersgo.com/school-bio/mem-ad-johnson.html
Michael Jones is the Tiger basketball beat writer for MemphiSport. You can follow him via Twitter @MemphisMJ.
Photo by Chase Gustafson.