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By David Pickle
There’s nothing trivial about Pittsburg State Athletics Director Jim Johnson, but he makes for a great trivia question.
That question is: Name the only person active in NCAA athletics who has served as a coach, athletics director (twice, actually), commissioner and NCAA staff member. That would be a full resume for most 45-year-olds, but Johnson also has thrown in a couple of additional stops as a consultant and as an associate AD.
This week finds Johnson in a typically prominent position, serving as chair of the Division II Men’s Basketball Committee. While serving as an associate AD at Central Missouri, AD at Texas A&M-Commerce, commissioner of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association and AD at Pitt State, Johnson also managed to squeeze in time for the Division II Management Council and to chair the Division II Membership Committee, in addition to serving on various task forces and helping with other special initiatives.
As many twists and turns as Johnson’s career has had, he has ended up exactly where he wanted to be all along – as the athletics director at a high-profile Division II institution.
How he got there provides a wonderful study in career mapping.
Probably the only time Johnson kept his career simple was at the beginning. He went to school at Tarleton State and then took a job on the student affairs staff after graduating. In 1990, he signed on with the athletics staff as a graduate assistant.
“You inherited things when people left or there were holes to fill,” he said. “They didn’t replace coaches with new coaches. You just looked around the staff and identified who has the least amount of stuff to do. Congratulations! You get to coach the golf team!”
Which he did – and it was a good gig. Johnson, a solid golfer himself, took the Texans to two NAIA national tournaments, one of which was at the TPC Sawgrass complex in Florida.
He also took on an unexpected three-year stint as coach of Tarleton’s women’s volleyball team.
“I clearly knew less about volleyball than I did about golf,” Johnson said, “but it’s one of those things that you get handed early in your career and you think, ‘Oh, my Lord! I do not want to do this.’ But you go ahead and do it and actually have some fun doing it and then 15 years down the road, you look back at it and say ‘That was a really valuable experience.’ ”
In short order, Johnson had experience with an individual sport, a team sport, a men’s sport and a women’s sport.
All the while Tarleton State was preparing for its move to NCAA Division II, which was made official at the 1994 Convention in San Antonio. After the school joined the NCAA, Johnson moved mainly into a compliance role and came to know NCAA staff member Bob Oliver, who was the Lone Star Conference’s staff contact at the time (Oliver, now retired, also hit the coach/AD/commissioner/NCAA staff member Pick 4 when he was active).
“I’ll always remember at a regional seminar in San Francisco in 1997, Bob said they were going to be adding some positions and looking for some people with some Division II experience and that I should apply.”
The first turn of the career had arrived.
Johnson joined the NCAA staff as a membership services representative, mostly providing interpretations when he wasn’t doing compliance reviews. “I was the luckiest guy on the face of the earth,” he said. “I might be only person ever in membership services who never had to process a waiver, and I was always thankful for that.”
Soon after Johnson arrived, he moved into the position of membership coordinator, working especially closely with the Divisions II and III Membership Committees. When Shane Lyons (now the associate commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference) left for Texas Tech, Johnson became secondary liaison for the Legislation Committee.
About that time, the Association federated, and Johnson became the first membership services legislative liaison to Division II.
“That period from April 1999 until Feb of ’02, those were three of the best years of my whole life,” Johnson said. “I had so much fun with all the stuff that we did, all the changes we made, all the progress we had working with Mike Racy (current Division II vice president) and working with Clint Bryant and Mike Marcil on the Management Council. We did a lot of fun stuff and I think built the foundation for what Division II is today.”
It didn’t feel like time for a change, but it was.
“I knew that I wanted be an AD or commissioner in the membership,” Johnson said. “I talked to Mike Marcil, who had made a similar move leaving the staff to go to the North Central Conference. He always thought that working on the NCAA staff was kind of like working at the Pentagon, and at some point you have to commit that you’re going to have to work for the Pentagon forever or you need to get back out in the trenches.”
So out in the trenches Johnson went, joining Oliver in working for an Indianapolis law firm doing compliance reviews, facility analysis and strategic-planning consultations. “Bob had done those as an AD (at Northern Colorado),” Johnson said, “so he was a perfect person to learn from. I got to see how things worked at a lot of different schools.”
The consulting work went well, and so did life in general. Johnson married Cindy Summerville, then the assistant AD for student services at Central Missouri, and moved to Warrensburg. When an associate AD job for fund-raising and development came up at Central Missouri, it was the perfect opportunity.
“I really felt like that was the last piece of the puzzle,” Johnson said. “All the while, I was working with the commissioners’ association as sort of a quasi-executive director, so I was creating a lot of relationships with those guys and learning how that association works and staying close to the NCAA. It really felt like it was all fitting together to become a candidate for a commissioner or AD position.”
Johnson modeled himself after four mentors from his early Lone Star Conference days: Skip Wagon of Central Oklahoma, Jerry Vandergriff and Kathleen Brasfield of Angelo State, and Margo Harbison, the legendary former AD at Texas A&M-Commerce. The Harbison contact paid off especially well, both in terms of knowledge and positioning.
“I had gotten to know Margot well,” he said. “She was on the Management Council, but I had known her even back to my days at Tarleton when I’d go to AD meetings as an assistant.”
The Texas A&M-Commerce job was the opportunity Johnson had been waiting for.
“I knew the people there, I knew the lay of the land and I thought, to get your first AD job, this is reasonable,” Johnson said. “I knew I wasn’t going to get the Grand Valley job or North Alabama or Central Missouri. This one, I might have a chance, so I applied and it worked out.”
He settled in for what he thought would be a five-year run, maybe longer. Instead, five years became two.
Johnson had always had his eye on the MIAA job, but he thought it would be years before it opened. So early in 2007, Johnson’s career-mapping process was turned off for once. But when Ralph McFillen retired as MIAA commissioner, Johnson discovered that he had accidentally made himself into a candidate. “I think going to Commerce had a benefit because as an associate AD at Central Missouri, I don’t think I would have gotten the MIAA job from within the league.”
Johnson did get the job, and he found he was prepared for most aspects of it. “There weren’t very many days when something happened and I said, ‘Boy, I never expected that.’ ” he said.
But though there were few small surprises, there were a couple of big ones.
“It’s a hard job, and it’s a lonely job in a lot of respects,” he said. “You go from being at the NCAA and then on a campus, and then you’re going to work every day and you’re only around three other people. That’s a big change.”
In time, Johnson also discovered that he and his family missed having a team to root for (or at least to appropriately root for). “Having two young boys probably magnified that,” Johnson said of Ely and Riley, who had grown up as Central Missouri Mules. “We had to explain the principle of neutrality to them, which was a little difficult to do.”
In short, Johnson discovered he missed being on a college campus.
The move to Pitt State came out of conversations with President Steve Scott. “He was a member of our Presidents Council and I had known him when I would come down to Pittsburg for games,” Johnson said. “We just really hit it off, and when Chuck (Broyles) decided to retire, President Scott and I had a conversation about whether I would be interested in going to campus.”
At first, Johnson’s instinct was to stay put, but the more he thought about it, the more he became convinced that if he was going to return to campus, this was the time to do it.
“Although I’m a little biased now,” Johnson said, “I think Pittsburg is a model Division II school – a place where we can really bring the strategic platform to life and a place where community-engagement and game-environment are a natural fit. It’s a traditional college town, it has good facilities but room to grow, a great staff – so a lot of what I was looking for was already there.”
Though the path to his current position has been a twisted one, Johnson believes his broad experiences have made him better prepared.
“The benefit I have because of this background is that I have the ability to think and plan from a global perspective,” he said. “I know what our priorities are nationally, I know what our priorities are as a conference, and at the other end of that scale, we’ve got eight head coaches and 300-plus student-athletes who want to win championships. So as we bring the Division II platform to life and make things like championship success and facility expansion a reality, having that broad perspective is a benefit.”
And that perspective has made him more patient.
“I do a better job at explaining why something is the way it is,” Johnson said. “And that’s helped me because I’m always cautious now. I’m going to make the decisions that people aren’t going to like, but as long as I can explain why I made it, I can sleep at night.”
That’s good, because after so many career twists and turns, Jim Johnson probably needs a rest.