The Bob Johnson Coaching Tree
Bob Johnson won 370 games in his 27-year coaching career at Emory & Henry College.
Jamion Christian was 22 years old in 2003 when he entered coaching as an assistant at Division III program Emory & Henry College, located in the extreme Southwestern corner of Virginia.
He was going to work for Bob Johnson, a Vietnam veteran with two bad knees who had battled cancer. Johnson was in his 23rd year coaching E&H, a program he’d built from the ground and led to five national tournaments.
Johnson told Christian to call him when he arrived at his new residence in town.
“I go upstairs and my parents are carrying some stuff up and I hear this noise,” Christian recalled. “I go to the stairs and there’s coach Johnson with a mattress on his back. Didn’t need any help, didn’t want any help. He was that type of leader.”
Christian is set to begin his fifth season coaching his alma mater, Mount St. Mary’s. He’s also the youngest member of a remarkable coaching tree. Christian is one of five Division I coaches to cut his teeth working for Johnson at Emory & Henry. The others are Jimmy Allen (Army), Jon Coffman (Fort Wayne), Nathan Davis (Bucknell) and Mike Young (Wofford). Allen and Young also played for Johnson at E&H.
Of the 20 assistants who worked for Johnson in his career at E&H, one-fourth have reached college basketball’s coaching pinnacle - a Division I head job.
They endured low pay, long hours and a lean budget during their time on staff. But they gained invaluable lessons about leadership, life and basketball from Johnson, who died on Aug. 22, 2009, two days shy of his 63rd birthday.
They also enjoyed cold beers on the back porch and home cooked meals prepared by Bob’s wife, Sherry.
“It was not unusual for him to come by in the morning and hand you a book on philosophy or leadership, and say ‘hey, drop whatever you’re doing and we’re going to discuss this over beers tonight,’” Coffman said.
Johnson was a United States Army Ranger and platoon leader of the 101st airborne division, who spent a year in heavy combat in Vietnam. His father, Harold, was a highly decorated Army war veteran who survived the Bataan Death March and later became Army Chief of Staff.
Johnson arrived at Emory & Henry in 1980. He inherited a program void of a winning season for 13 years.
“When he took that job it had to be the worst job in college basketball,” said Young who is entering his 15th season as head coach at Wofford. “No tradition. Where are the players going to come from? The basketball back there at that time was awful. You had to go to Roanoke, Richmond, northern Va., driving by a lot of schools in your league and comparable schools to get there. What he did and how he did it was remarkable. He was a terrific coach, a great coach.”
Young played for Johnson from 1982-86, serving as team captain the final two seasons. He spent two years as Johnson’s lone assistant, went to Radford for one year and has been at Wofford ever since.
Those early days are seared into his memory.
Young made $5,000 a year, which doubled to $10,000 when he added responsibilities as a resident director.
“There was a price to be paid for the membership in that group,” Young said. “He was the toughest man I’ve ever been around. It was a great start for me. He taught me about treating people the right way and you have to take care of your stuff. Losing a basketball was cause for national emergency. I live that way today. You take care of your stuff. You have pride in what you have and just doing it the right way.”
Jimmy Allen is about to start his first year as a DI head coach. Last spring he replaced his former boss at Army, Zach Spiker, who departed for Drexel.
Allen was an outstanding player at Emory & Henry, playing point guard on four 20-win NCAA tournament teams. He’s inducted in the school’s Hall of Fame for his playing career and worked for Johnson from 1993-96.
“From day one he was always teaching life lessons that were never just about basketball,” Allen said. “How are you treating people around you? Your family? Your teammates? How are you improving on the basketball court? And how hard are you working academically? It was how he lived and the example he set, how hard he worked how much he cared. He was intense and competitive and that came across from him.”
And tough. Once in the latter stages of his career, unhappy with his team’s effort in a rigorous defensive drill, he performed it for 20 minutes straight, holding a 15-pound medicine ball overhead. Johnson earned the respect of everyone at Emory & Henry, where he also taught a class in western civilization and worked from 1980 to 1990 as an assistant coach for the football team.
A rumor circulated through the cafeteria. Johnson could kill a man six ways with a spoon. No students felt brave enough to determine if it was fact or fiction. In fact, most hid their spoons.
Coffman spent three seasons working for Johnson, coming from a brief career in finance in San Francisco. From Johnson he learned more than there’s room for here. But loyalty and integrity are two traits he relies on in leading his program at Fort Wayne. Johnson forced his assistants - and players - out of their comfort zone and the reward was a tight-knit network of alums who remain close to this day.
It wasn’t easy, though.
“I tell my young assistants now they have no idea what I went through at that level for $5,000 a year,” he said. “I covered everything - from the academics to the recruiting, to the managing the schedule, everything we did went through me as a young assistant, nonstop, I put 100,000 miles on my Grand Cherokee my first year coaching there.”
The Wasps won 374 games (and lost 330) in Johnson’s 27 seasons and twice advanced to the Sweet 16.
Still, Johnson was a thinker, never afraid to step outside the box or challenge convention, not concerned with other folks opinion of him. Later in his career Johnson became fascinated with the uber up-tempo style of basketball made famous by tiny Grinnell College in Iowa. This coincided with Christian’s stint on the staff. Christian describes Johnson as having exceptional emotional intelligence, always knowing if his players needed to be cheered, cajoled or chewed out.
They shared a passion for playing fast, believed they had the personnel to make it effective and became creative mapping it out.
Together, they divided the 25-man Wasps into seven-man units, let the teams name themselves to help each develop its own personality. Christian describes it as “one of the most fun activities I’ve been a part of in my life.”
“When you have a military guy you give him an army,” Christian said. “We broke them up into these pieces and made an offense for each group of guys … you’re creating something. How often do you get a chance to create something in college basketball? Everybody is kind of copying each other now. We were really trying to create something that was fun and unique and then getting players to buy in. We had to ask the best guys to play 15 minutes instead of 30 minutes, to do that you’re going to make our whole team better.”
In 2005-06, Emory & Henry averaged 104 points and 17 3-pointers per game.
Nathan Davis, in his second year at Bucknell, spent one year on Johnson’s staff.
All of the former assistants used to gather at the Final Four. When Christian recommended his assistant Ben Wilkins to Jimmy Allen, the new Army coach took Christian’s word that he could help build the program at West Point. Those small ties and connections are integral steps on the road to success.
Young knows Johnson would be proud of his former assistants reaching the D1 mountaintop. But he wouldn’t allow them to think they had arrived, become arrogant or forget their roots. Young, like the others, misses being able to pick up the phone and talk hoops and life with a smart, strong man who mentored many.
“Our relationship was a mutual respect,” Coffman said. “Later in his career he had really evolved. He appreciated me challenging him, not just about basketball, but politics, literature. He thrived on confrontation and getting into an argument. He’d let me give my piece and then rip it apart. When you look at what’s happened, he trained us to be D1 assistant coaches and successful coaches. The five of us got to where we are because of the start we had.”