|R.C. Johnson and his wife, Melba, at a recent Tiger basketball game. Johnson will
retire in June after a long run as U of M athletic director.
University of Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson recalls his first trip to Memphis
as a "crazy" affair, one wrought with national media coverage and a zoo-like atmosphere.
And no, it had nothing to do with sports.
Johnson was a relatively unknown associate athletic director at Northern Iowa in 1977
when Memphis’ most famous citizen, Elvis Presley, died. Johnson promptly loaded his
car, made the 610-mile road trip to Memphis by himself and then stood in line for
several hours in the blazing August sun to pay tribute to Presley.
"I wish I knew those guys (Priscilla Presley and Jack Soden) then because I had to
stand at the back of the line," Johnson recalls with a smile.
No doubt things would be different today. As the U of M’s athletic director for the
past 16 years, Johnson has become one of Memphis’ most recognizable and influential
figures, at times carving out his own rock-star status with moments like the hiring
of John Calipari in 2000 and the school’s recent BIG EAST invitation. He is set to
retire June 30.
"It has gone by fast," Johnson said of his tenure at the U of M. "I came here with
the intention of only being here a short time and ending up in the Big Ten, where
I started. But somewhere along the line, Melba (his wife) and I became Memphians."
When Johnson arrived at the University in 1996, the athletics program was teetering.
Training facilities on the Park Avenue Campus (formerly South Campus) had become rusty,
antiquated. Athletes were carrying low grade-point averages and weren’t graduating,
something opposing coaches were using in their recruitment arsenal against the Tigers.
Community and corporate involvement in the program was waning. That all changed, though,
with the hiring of Johnson, according to longtime U of M philanthropist Mike Rose.
"He brought professionalism to the AD’s office, something that didn’t exist before
in my experiences," said Rose. "He brought the ability to connect to the business
community in a way that had never been done before. The athletic department was raising
$1 million a year before R.C. Now it is at $7.5 million. You can see his worth."
Those dollars generated under Johnson’s campaign efforts have transformed the aging
Park Avenue Campus into a wonderland of sorts. The U of M has added the Frank Flautt
Golf Center, FedExPark baseball stadium and a state-of-the-art softball complex in
the past five years. Football practice facilities continue to dramatically improve,
quickly becoming on par with mentor schools.
"What was most rewarding to me was that we were able to accomplish those things basically
through the private sector," Johnson said. "The Mike Roses and Fred Smiths of the
world helped us get started, helped get the community involved. This came at a time
when money from Nashville was going down."
Academics, too, became a focal point with Johnson’s 2002 hiring of Dr. Joseph Luckey,
a then up-and-coming athletic academic advising administrator. With Luckey in place,
student athletes began to graduate at a record pace; this past fall, athletes set
a school record with
a combined 3.1 grade-point average.
"I never thought we would hit that," said Johnson. "That was phenomenal. We have gone
from not talking about academics with recruits to telling them about our academic
advising program, our grade-point average,
the honors our teams have achieved."
Rose points to Johnson’s hiring of Calipari and the invitation by the BIG EAST as
the AD’s finest moments. "The hiring brought Memphis basketball back to national prominence,"
Rose said. "Getting into the BIG EAST, that has changed the future of the University’s
Johnson said while he has no one favorite moment, the five bowl games, the trip to
the NCAA basketball finals in 2008 and having people "buy into the program" stand
Those people include Priscilla Presley, who has funded two scholarships at the University
and someone who the Johnsons consider a close friend. Priscilla has hosted the Johnsons
at Graceland, and even served as an honorary U of M athletic director for a day. Johnson’s
office was decorated by Graceland personnel, and includes a guitar that Elvis once
played as well as Gold Records and other Elvis memorabilia.
Though a much shorter trip than in 1977, Johnson still visits Graceland. On Sundays,
he and his wife go to church, Starbucks and Gibson’s Donuts before their final destination,
Graceland, where Johnson said he signs the wall in front of the mansion during each
He even has a Graceland employee card.
"If things don’t work out for me after retirement, I might just drive a tour bus,"
he said with a laugh.
Johnson said he and Melba plan on remaining in Memphis after he retires.
"I plan to keep going to Tiger games, but I won’t hover." — by Greg Russell