This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of MemphiSport
Much to the chagrin of Geoff Calkins, Jerry “The King” Lawler, and a growing portion of Tiger Nation, R.C. Johnson is still the athletic director at the University of Memphis. He is still the guy who will control the Tigers’ fate in the next round of conference shakeups. He is still guy who thinks he can turn Tiger football into a winning program. He is still the guy that big money boosters support. He is still the guy who hired John Calipari and Josh Pastner. He is still the guy who hired Tic Price and Larry Porter. He is still a huge Elvis fan. And most importantly, he is still in charge.
In the midst of the most scrutiny he has received since arriving in the Bluff City, R.C. Johnson talked with MemphiSport about Tiger football, the BCS, his legacy, pro wrestling and more.
What Elvis Presley song best describes the current state of Tiger football? All Shook Up.
Not Heartbreak Hotel? Not right now.
What about It’s Now or Never? Naw, I don’t think so. I think All Shook Up because of changes we have made with the staff recently. Football is so important. It’s going to take some time and we are going to keep working on it. The bottom line is – we need to win games.
What about A Mess of Blues? You don’t like All Shook Up? [Laughs] They all apply.
Do you think Memphis can be a football town? Absolutely. I have been here long enough to know. It’s like “If we build it, they will come.” If we win, it will turn around. This is football country. We have a huge Tiger Nation for basketball, bigger than any besides Kentucky. But this is football country.
Why is Memphis not already in a BCS conference? I think that is a great question. The only missing piece to the puzzle is probably if we were where TCU is in football right now, we would probably be in one. The most important things are football and the TV market.
What is holding Memphis football back from being on the level of a school like TCU or Boise State? I don’t think anything is holding us back. It is a matter of getting out there and doing it. I know where other budgets are, and I know what our budget is. We are in good stead there. I don’t know if there is anything Larry (Porter) wanted us to do that we haven’t been able to do outside the lines. Same with staffing. He asked for more money for weight coaches. We have two full timers and three graduate assistants just for football weight lifting. In many cases we are ahead of other schools. I think the things are in place now and it is a matter of executing them.
So you are saying Tiger football is ready right now to start competing for the Conference USA championship? I think now more than ever. The reason I say that is what we’ve been able to do with staff salaries, the money we have been able to put into recruiting and operations, the improvements we have been able to make, the number of times we are on television. All of these things are better than they used to be. And now it is just a matter of getting the recruits in here and we will have a run at it.
What are the three most important parts of your current plan to improve Tiger football? First is always recruiting. You’ve got to get the recruits in. That would be number one. Number two is probably getting the coaching staff where they are comfortable with one another. And then go from there. You can always put more money into a program. It doesn’t matter if you are Texas or UCLA or Michigan. But we are limited on scholarships. We are at the full amount scholarships, the full amount of staff. We continue to work on improvements for facilities. We are working on a $10 million campaign right now to build a new indoor practice facility.
If a booster called you tomorrow and offered you $100 million for Tiger football, how would you allocate it? I think we would take a look at the on campus stadium. People don’t believe it, but I would love to have an on campus stadium. If a guy came around and gave us $100 million, we certainly would take a good, hard look at it. But the fact is there are schools that have on campus stadiums that still aren’t winning.
Wouldn’t an on campus stadium help with recruiting? You have to admit, the U of M campus is much nicer than the fairgrounds. Oh yea, Yea. Absolutely. That’s true. But when we bring in recruits, they think the Liberty Bowl is a pretty neat place. There are a lot of stadiums that aren’t 62,000 seats. We have a new locker room. And with Tiger Lane now, there is a lot of ambiance.
Though you never get close to filling up that 62,000-seat stadium. No, but the atmosphere is pretty good. I’ve talked to our players, they like it. Now an on campus stadium, I have nothing against it. I’d rather have it. If a guy came with $100 million, that would solve that issue. But that still doesn’t guarantee us to win. No one in any of our BCS talks has ever been critical or concerned about the Liberty Bowl Stadium.
Are you embarrassed that some local high schools have a better video screen than the one at the Liberty Bowl? I don’t know if embarrassed is the word. We thought we were going to get new JumboTrons this year. That was the plan in place. Then the city had their school system issues. The plan was to get a JumboTron on the south end, a JumboTron on the north end, and a JumboTron at Tiger Lane. But now it has moved from the front burner to the back burner. That again isn’t the cure-all.
If things don’t work out with Coach Porter is there enough money to go hire a big time coach? Well, I don’t know what kind of money we are talking about. We have never been without all the money we’ve needed to do what we want with coaches. That’s because of the private sector.
When basketball was struggling, you followed up the disaster hire that was Tic Price with the flashy big time hire of John Calipari. Would something like that work for football? Not necessarily. Other schools have done it and it hasn’t always worked out. I get a lot of that on emails now saying, “We need to get a big name coach.” Again that is not the cure-all. We need to find someone that makes the right fit. I get people who say, “Don’t hire any coaches that have anything to do with the North. Hire only people who are South oriented.” Money is not the issue. It is the fit, and hopefully Larry will get this thing going.
Explain why getting paid to travel and lose to major college football programs is not part of your plan to raise money and rebuild Tiger football? First of all, the teams that we are playing, we get to play here at home, which generates money for us. Tennessee and Mississippi State both will play us home-and-home. I did contact Notre Dame and asked them about playing a game with them where they would pay us. I’m working on schedules for 2022 and 2023. You have to work that far in advance. Notre Dame has an opening probably in 2030, but no one schedules that far in advance. I tried that because I thought it would be great for exposure. Our budget is $38 million, If a school pays us $500,000, it will probably cost $150,000 to go after we charter the airplane and everything else. $350,000 is not a whole heck of a lot of money. If we couldn’t ever get anyone to come here, the situation would be different.
But wouldn’t losing to Ohio State for money still be better than losing to Arkansas State for free? Yea, but we want to play some of those schools we think we are going to beat. And we should be able to beat those schools. You look around the country… Tennessee opened up with Montana. Alabama plays North Texas and Kent State. Now East Carolina plays three big money games and they have been kind of successful, but they don’t use all of that money for football. We have been able to raise more money than anyone in conference.
But while the team is losing on a consistent basis, what is wrong with one game a year where you get a big check and national exposure? There is a camp that wants to do that. There is a camp that wants to play all SEC teams in our nonconference. Another camp wants us to do what we are trying to do which is playing two name teams a year and two smaller conference schools.
What is something that you just started doing recently that looking back you should have started doing sooner to help Tiger football? We have continued to build facilities. People forget the Billy Murphy complex, where the football offices and complex is, that was all new. We did that when we first got here. Recently we hired a group named Inspire, a marketing firm that worked at Georgia Tech last year. There are nine of them that are here. Their full time job is selling season tickets, primarily football. but. Tennessee did the same thing. That’s probably something we should have done earlier.
What has been your proudest moment as athletic director? Well the standard answer is to say, “I haven’t had it yet.” That’s always the cute answer I read in Parade magazine. I would say the engagement we have had in the community over a period of time. Also we are graduating better now, and we have zero teams not qualifying by NCAA APR rates. Our GPA is 3.0. And that is good stuff. I think we have the whole community. My two charges when I got here were to get the community involved and raise money.
What has been your biggest regret as athletic director? One thing is football not being where we want it. I will always regret how the Larry Finch thing was handled. I didn’t know all of the players, and I didn’t know all the ins and out of the community. If I could do that over again, I would make it better. We had to make a change… I’m just not happy with the way it all went down.
How much do you regret not leaking the letter of inquire from the NCAA when Calipari was interviewing for the Kentucky job? We talked to schools on probation and about 75% of them said if you are really going to do an investigation, you have to keep it as quite as you can because the media will call you every-other-day wanting to know what’s going on. People will clam up because they think their name will be in the paper. We just thought it would be more efficient if we didn’t.
What do you say to people who claim you lucked into the hiring of Josh Pastner? Josh was always on my list because Calipairi sat here and said, “I want $200,000 to hire an assistant coach.” I almost fell out of my chair. He told me it was Josh Pastner. I didn’t know Josh Pastner anymore than I knew Rick Ross. Once Josh got here, I could see he was high energy and had a bright future. He was the prime candidate to replace John internally, but because of the level of our program I felt I needed to talk to Tim Floyd and people all over. When it got down to it, I didn’t know Josh was packed up ready to go to Kentucky at the time I called him to meet me at my house.
How often do you still talk to Calipari? Probably weekly.
Does he call you? Yea or I call him. One or the other. We were together here for nine years. We had lots of interaction.
How much of the conversation is sports related? About half of it. The other half is probably things he talks about or things I talk about. It’s a different relationship. It’s not the athletic director and the basketball coach. It is two guys who went through some struggles together.
How often to you talk with U of M president Shirley Raines about issues related to the athletic department? Three or four times a week. I meet with her every Monday morning from 9:00 am to noon. I am on what they call the President’s Council. We have a regular scheduled meeting every two weeks, and talk by phone almost daily.
Does she ever suggest any big ideas or does she just let you do your thing? We are in this together. She is the boss. We talk about things. She really doesn’t micromanage.
How often to you talk to people connected to BCS conferences and realignment? Regularly. I have set times I call commissioners and other athletic directors. Some I have known as friends for a long time and others that I think will help us as a program down the road. We also have a committee of people from the private sector who are helping us and making contact with various individuals.
What do the BCS people you talk to think about Tiger football’s recent trend of blowout losses? They don’t look at it game-by-game. It’s more of a bigger picture type thing.
What do you have to say about Jerry “The King” Lawler speaking out against you and Coach Porter? I’m taking my complaints straight to Vince McMahon. [Laughs] I’m a WWE guy. I saw Jerry Lawler the other night on TV. He was in the ring with Triple H.
You watch Monday night wrestling? Oh yeah, RAW.
Who is your favorite wrestler of all time? Ric Flair, “The Nature Boy.” I think he has been national champion like 462 times. On the other channel, TNT or whatever it is, Hulk and Flair have their own thing going on. It’s a bunch of old guys that used to be with McMahon.
Can you do the Ric Flair “Woo”? No I can’t. [Laughs]
Would you face your No. 1 critic/Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins in a wrestling match for charity? Naw.
Have you ever been fired from a job? When I was an assistant football coach at the University of Iowa in 1962 or 63.
Do you have plans to retire before the end of your contract? I haven’t thought about that. My contract ends June 1, 2013. I still enjoy the job.
Do you think Brett Favre should have retired earlier? [Laughs] Where did that one come from? No. He was still productive and he wanted to do it.
Is there something you are trying to accomplish before you leave? All sorts of things. I want to get football going. I want to keep the fundraising going, and keep building facilities.
What do you want your legacy to be? That’s a great question. I haven’t thought about that because I haven’t thought about the retirement aspect. And I think when you know you are getting close to hanging it up, you start think about that stuff. I just think we have come a long way and we have a way to go. I want to keep going. I just don’t think we are done yet, so I haven’t thought about that.
Kevin Cerrito is the managing editor of MemphiSport and host of MemphiSport Live (MSL) every Saturday from 11:00 am – 1:00 pm on Sports 56 WHBQ. MSL was voted 3rd Best Sports Radio Show in the 2010 & 2011 Memphis Flyer Best of Memphis poll. You can follow him via Twitter @cerrito.
Photos by Chase Gustafson.