New athletic director hits the ground running

By Donna Stephens Originally Published July 28, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated July 26, 2013 at 3:04 p.m.
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Johnny Johnson hit the Pope County ground running July 1, 2012, as the new athletic director for the Russellville School District.

After a year that included staff reorganization, winning bids for hosting conference and state competitions, fundraising and success on the field, he is energized and enthusiastic about 2013-14 and beyond.

“The thing that’s so crazy is how fast the year went by,” said Johnson, 50, whose two previous stints included 11 years as athletic director of the Little Rock School District and 11 seasons as men’s basketball coach at University of the Ozarks in Clarksville. “It’s hard to believe we’ve been here for one year.”

The fact that his parents are relatively nearby in Magazine was one attraction for him, but certainly not the only one.

“Russellville is a one-town, one-school system,” he said. “We’ve had people talk to us, had opportunities to leave Little Rock for other positions, but it’s so much easier to raise money and get support when you’re only trying to raise money for one school. Russellville has been successful, but it’s going to be fun to try to work with them on upgrading facilities. They need all of these upgrades, whereas you go to a Cabot that’s already got those things in place, you don’t have as much say over facilities. Here, you’re going to have a lot of opportunities to help.”

He has received an enthusiastic welcome.

“Johnny has done a great job,” Russellville football coach Jeff Holt said. “He has come in with some exciting new ideas, and I have really enjoyed our first year working together. He wants Russellville athletics to be a program every child in the River Valley wants to be in, and that is exciting to me. He is easy to work with and really understands what a coach goes through on a daily basis. Johnny is a tremendous addition to our school district.”

The first item on Johnson’s agenda last summer was staff reassignments. He said he wanted to make sure the varsity head coaches had control of their programs from seventh through 12th grades, particularly for football, boys and girls basketball and track. So he met with those head coaches and told them, “Go and think about who you want, and tell me where we need to have our best people, and we need to have them equally placed (for example, between the two junior highs or middle schools).”

Because coaches often take whatever position is available within a district to get a foothold into the system, sometimes, for example, a basketball-oriented individual winds up with more football duties or vice versa.

“So we’re trying to utilize everybody’s skills to the best of their abilities,” Johnson said. “We moved over 10 of them, but the good thing about it was everything was voluntary. Everybody was very receptive, and we basically went off the recommendations of those head coaches. A lot of them were going back to their strengths. It was quite an undertaking, but we couldn’t have asked for a better group.”

Another goal was to bring as many championship events to Russellville as possible. For the first time, the Cyclones were able to host the Class 6A State Tennis Tournament in October. They’ll host it again this fall. Russellville also secured the conference cross-country meet last fall, the junior high conference basketball tournament, the Class 6A State Track and Field Championships and the Class 6A State Softball Tournament. They’ll also host the state volleyball finals in November.

“I think that’s big for our community and our businesses,” he said. “We want to try to bring as much stuff to Russellville as we can. We’re going to try to bid on softball, baseball and soccer [for 2014].”

A young Lady Cyclone squad won the state volleyball championship last year, and Johnson said it would probably be favored to repeat this fall. Another young Lady Cyclone squad won the state softball title,

and Johnson said a repeat there is easily in the realm of possibility in 2014. The Cyclone football team hosted a playoff game for the first time in several years.

He oversees about 40 coaches from grades seven through 12, with two middle school and two junior high teams feeding into one varsity squad. District officials are considering going back to one junior high squad starting in 2014-15.

The Russ-Vegas Coaches Karaoke in January raised more than $5,000 for the Russellville Athletic Department.

“It was a big hit with the community and coaches,” Johnson said. “It’s fun to bring all our coaches together because you don’t get them all together very often. I have been really impressed with our coaches. We’re pretty much a young staff, and they’re energetic, and they work hard and have a good rapport with the kids and the parents. They’ve been receptive to all the changes we’ve come in and tried to make.”

Russ-Vegas 2014 is set for Jan. 25.

A new athletic department website, rsdsports.russell, is now online with links for staff, schedules and more. He said CSN Radio in Conway will livestream events there beginning this fall.

Next on the agenda is facilities. Johnson said renovations to the baseball and softball facilities will be ongoing this summer and fall. Russellville will break ground in December on a new high school gymnasium. Following that are plans to upgrade the press box and, he hopes, to build a new indoor football facility.

“We went into a brand-new fine-arts building last year,” he said. “It’s one of the nicest in the state, and it’s been big for our choir, band and drama. It’s made a huge difference for them, and I think that’s what will happen for our new gym.”

Johnson grew up in Little Rock, graduated from Cabot High School and earned a degree in business administration with a marketing major in 1985 from the University of Arkansas. He earned a master’s degree in education in 1992 at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville.

His first athletic job was as assistant basketball coach to Terry Garner at what is now Lyon College. Johnson spent eight years, starting in a graduate-assistant position, under Mike Newell at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. They led the Trojans to a 67-25 record and appearances in the NIT and NCAA tournaments.

After Newell left for Lamar, Johnson was hired at Ozarks, where he put together an overall record of 173-126 (a school record for wins). The Eagles won the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference title in 1993, the NAIA District 17 Tournament in ’93 and ’94, and played in two NAIA National Tournaments.

All was going well at Ozarks until the administration made a unilateral decision to move from the NAIA to NCAA Division III — no scholarships.

“We were devastated, especially off the success we had had,” Johnson said. “We’d been ranked in the top 25 the previous two years, and we were preseason 13th that year. We didn’t have any input; nobody knew what was coming, so we sent all of our players to other scholarship schools because the school wasn’t going to grandfather them in and honor their scholarships like Hendrix did when they made the move.”

So, he said, Ozarks started from scratch in D-III.

“We got the program built back up, but it’s just hard to control winning and losing without scholarships,” he said. “So I was to a point after 11 years of coaching that I was ready to do something different.”

That led him to Little Rock.

“We loved Clarksville, and we loved Ozarks,” he said. “I went in the Hall of Fame there in 2011. Clarksville will always be a special community for us, but Little Rock was like going back home.”

At the Little Rock School District, he supervised the athletic programs for five high schools and seven middle schools, among other duties. Little Rock School District teams were the first to play high school basketball games at what was then Alltel Arena, which eventually led to the Arkansas Activities Association bringing the state finals there. A new gym at Little Rock’s Hall High School and privately funded turf at Quigley Stadium are among his highlights there.

By 2012, though, he said he thought he’d accomplished about all he could at Little Rock.

“The biggest thing we were proud of was trying to restore credibility back to that district, and we tried to establish accountability with our coaches, work with the facilities,” he said. “The district has a lot of good people, but unfortunately, athletics was not a priority, and it hasn’t been a priority for a long time. They have a new superintendent now, and I hope they’ll put more emphasis on athletics.”

After two stops in the past 23 years, Johnson is not a job-hopper. His wife, Robin, will be counselor at Center Valley Elementary School in the Russellville district; their older son Drake (band and wrestling) will be a senior, and younger son Bryce (band and tennis) will be a sophomore this year, so the Johnsons appear to be settled in nicely.

“We’re fortunate to have somebody like him who has a lot of experience in dealing with a lot of situations,” said girls basketball coach Steve Wiedower, who knew Johnson in Little Rock when Wiedower was an assistant women’s coach at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “Coming in, he talked about the things we were doing and the things he envisioned for us. It’s been a great relationship, and it’s going to continue to get better. “We’re tickled to death.”

None Donna Stephens can be reached at .

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