Central Baptist College Vice President Ryan Johnson now wears a suit and tie every day, but he has spent more time in a baseball uniform.
Johnson, 38, of Conway played independent professional baseball and coached before he slid into higher education.
“That was my passion,” he said of the sport. “From a time I could remember, I had a bat in my hand.”
Johnson was born in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and his father was stationed at the Air Force base there.
When Johnson was 5, the family moved to Rockford, Illinois, and Johnson played baseball in high school.
Johnson, who describes himself as having “a very intense personality,” said he gravitated toward baseball.
He played for two years at a junior college in Illinois, and the team took spring-break trips to the South, where Johnson loved the weather.
“I was worn out by the cold. I wanted to go somewhere warmer,” he said. “I fell in love with Arkansas. It was a little different; that’s for sure.”
Then-baseball coach Kirk Kelley at Lyon College in Batesville recruited Johnson. He played baseball for the Scots for two years, and was a student assistant for another year as he finished his degree. Johnson laughed when he said his degree is in English.
“I went for baseball,” he said as an explanation.
The Philadelphia Phillies put him in the draft, but he didn’t get drafted. He started his professional career in Greenville, Mississippi, where he played half a season and was invited to spring training but got cut.
To make a living, Johnson went back home to Rockford and worked as a “grunt guy” at a furniture store.
“I was thinking, ‘What in the world am I supposed to be doing with my life?’”
Within six months, Kelley called Johnson and asked him to come to Lyon College as an assistant coach.
“I stepped right in and had a blast,” he said.
“I did three things for $18,000 — I was the assistant baseball coach; I was the assistant intramural director; I was the one and only sports-information director,” he said.
Kelley, now head football coach at Lyon College, said there isn’t enough paper to put in all the good things he could say about Johnson.
“He is absolutely as good as gold as a person, as a friend,” Kelley said. “I coached him and coached with him. He’s truly one of those people that he makes every single person around him better. He’s way up in my book; he’s special.”
In the offseason, Johnson got one of many calls throughout his career to play ball.
The manager of the Springfield Capitals called and asked him to try out. Johnson went, with Kelley’s blessing.
“He said, ‘You’re young; you should do it,’” Johnson said.
Johnson made the team, and “did pretty good,” he said.
He also got his own baseball card. From there, he went to the Cook County Cheetahs in Chicago and got another baseball card.
His strong point was defense.
“I did well up the middle,” he said.
Johnson got word that “they needed a body” to be a pitching coordinator at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.
In the fall of 2000, he came to Conway and lived in the baseball house and got to coach under Toby White, who is now in Louisiana.
Playing baseball wasn’t out of Johnson’s system, though. The deal was that he could coach and still go play baseball, if called.
Steve Maddock, the manager he’d played for in Cook County went to Tyler, Texas, and Johnson got a call from him. Johnson packed up and went to play for the Roughnecks in Rose Stadium, “a classic stadium with a ton of history to it,” he said.
“I kept following him. I played pretty regularly,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t a great runner. On that team, I was kind of a role player as well, a good defensive replacement and had some opportunity to play on a regular basis.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “It was a great experience just learning the game.”
After the Roughnecks, Johnson went to play on a team in west Texas.
“I was kind of a role player again,” Johnson said. Although contributing to the team regularly, he said, he was traded to a team in south Texas.
Johnson, a left-handed hitter and a right-handed thrower, was sliding to get a ball hit up the middle when another player collided with him, and the player’s knee hit Johnson’s finger. His finger was broken and placed in a cast.
“The team liked me so much they kept me on,” he said.
However, Johnson was on the disabled list, and it took weeks for him to recover.
“I did fielding, light hitting and worked my way back,” he said. “By that time, they had someone else. They traded me back to St. Angelo. They had a really good team that year. We clicked. We won the league championship. That was a highlight. All athletes work to win a championship in some way. That was a lot of fun.”
By that time, however, Johnson was 26 years old.“I saw the handwriting on the wall,” he said. In the offseason, when he turned 27, he told his baseball manager he thought it was time to retire.
Doug Clark became the UCA baseball coach and kept Johnson on as an assistant.
“I said, ‘I’m 100 percent going to coach,’” Johnson said. He coached for nine seasons, including seven years with Clark.
“This is where the journey gets real spiritual,” Johnson said.
As much as he loved baseball, his intensity pushed out everything else when he coached.
“When I was coaching, everything else suffered,” he said, including his church life.
He’d been attending Antioch Baptist Church since he came to Conway in 2000, and he joined the church in 2002. It’s where he met his wife, Sally, whom he married 3 1/2 years ago.
“At the tail end of coaching, I felt an uneasiness,” he said.
Johnson said Clark was honest with him that he didn’t think Johnson was producing like he should be.
“Clark quickly reminded me that I had a degree,” Johnson said.
Johnson had finished a master’s in training systems at UCA.
“The only master’s program I could get into,” he said, laughing.
In his prayer time, Johnson said, he wrote down three things he felt God had given him — the ability to lead people, the ability to manage people and a servant’s heart.
“I said, ‘Show me where that is,’” Johnson said.
Three months later, in 2009, he got a job at Central Baptist College in Conway in marketing and recruiting for the professional adult college education program, or PACE. It was a natural fit, he said.
Johnson said he adapted his technique of recruiting baseball players to recruiting students. After a year, he was named director of recruitment, after all recruitment efforts for nontraditional and traditional students were combined.
From there, he filled the newly created position of associate vice president for enrollment management to focus not just on recruitment, but also on retention.
In 2013, another position was created that Johnson was promoted to — associate vice president for enrollment management.
Johnson was also named to the administrative committee, which is CBC President Terry Kimbrow’s leadership council.
“That was eye-opening — this is where all the decisions get made,” Johnson said. “That was pretty humbling.”
On July 28, he became vice president of enrollment management, also a newly created position.
Johnson reports directly to Kimbrow, which he said he enjoys.
“Terry is such an engaging person. He’s just a leader you want to follow. In the coaching world, I’d call him a player’s coach,” Johnson said.
Kimbrow had high praise for Johnson, too.
“When Ryan was hired five years ago, I was immediately impressed with his drive and attention to detail. I had no doubt then that if he stuck with CBC, I wanted to see him move up,” Kimbrow said.
“When I made him associate vice president last year, his leadership skills became even more apparent. Vice presidents are the only positions at CBC requiring full board approval. I presented my recommendation to them, and he received a unanimous vote from my 20-member board,” Kimbrow said. He jokingly added, “I’m not even sure I got that kind of vote.”
Johnson said he enjoys coming to work every day.
“It’s fun, but it’s tremendously challenging,” he said.
He said that because it’s a small college — between 800 and 900 students, including PACE students — he has a lot of responsibilities.
“It’s such a broad scope,” Johnson said. He supervises admissions, athletics, “because I have that background,” student services, financial aid and the registrar’s office.
Johnson said one of many things he likes about CBC is how well everyone on campus works together for a common goal.
“We’re not just here to put people in class seats to get a biology degree, or a bachelor’s degree. We’re here to develop leaders. We’re here to develop strong men and women for the Lord,” he said. “We want to create a challenging, engaging, inspiring environment that [we can use to] really impact the world through these students.”
Johnson said CBC administrators aren’t afraid to mix it up and make personnel changes to match a person’s strengths and skills with the positions.
“We don’t just rock along and say, ‘Let’s just keep doing what we’ve always done,’” Johnson said. “This is a new Central Baptist College that is relevant but is never going to stray from its mission.”
The campus is completing the first phase of the Vision 2020 campaign, the goal of which is to complete 10 major construction projects in 10 years to accommodate 2,020 students. The campus has a new library, and a residence hall set to open this fall in which all 150 beds are filled, he said.
Building athletic facilities is in the plan, too, he said.
Johnson is proud of the CBC baseball team.
“We just hired a new coach last year, and he’s outstanding. We went to the conference tournament,” Johnson said.
Johnson is decorating his office with baseball paraphernalia to make it a “baseball sanctuary,” he said.
“My dream was to play some kind of professional baseball, and I did,” he said.
Johnson has his championship ring in his office, along with baseball cards with his picture on them from his time with the Cook County Cheetahs.
“That’s kind of a baseball fantasy — that you have your own baseball card,” he said.
He pointed out the framed poster with the word “TEAM” on it and a quote about teamwork. He said that also applies to his job.
“I coach every day here — it’s just in a different manner,” he said.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or email@example.com.
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