Sixteen years ago R.C. Johnson became the University of Memphis athletic director and he started the tradition of an annual media appreciation luncheon. John Calipari, among others, would have choked on the idea.
On Wednesday, April 25, with Johnson’s retirement just weeks away, he played host for a final time. He joked that his motives were not pure, saying he hoped these luncheons would prevent people from writing “bad things” about him and making fun of his hair.
“It didn’t work out so well,” he said, deadpan.
It was the one moment when the elephant in the room was acknowledged amid polite applause and R.C.’s easy, friendly way. He welcomed me and shook my hand before I could even get a lettuce leaf on my plate (forgive me, oh father, for I too have made fun of R.C.’s hair and questioned if he napped through conference realignment).
In the end, R.C. got the Tigers into the Big East. He got Calipari here to resurrect Memphis basketball. Of course, he also let Cal pull his strings all the way to a new job and eventual national title at Kentucky. The supposed firing of Larry Finch at the hot dog stand was a bum rap, but his quote about the Memphis airport being a draw is an enduring punch line.
R.C. was good at fundraising (really good), and not so good at shepherding a football program that has yet another new coach.
Longtime Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins criticized Johnson as much as anyone – “I called him bumbling fairly frequently,” he said – but Johnson never held a grudge. He was gracious.
“He treated me better than I deserved,” Calkins said, “better than I treated him.”
Chris Vernon hosts an afternoon show on 730 AM Yahoo! Sports Radio. His take on R.C.: “There’s people in this town that think he’s great and there’s people in this town that think he’s terrible. I’m probably in the middle because I like him. I think he’s a nice guy and that goes a long way.”
In the end, that’s probably why he lasted 16 years. Even when he was way wrong – six years of Rip Scherer and the hiring of Tic Price to name two coaching mistakes too easily forgotten – R.C. never quit extending his hand and making you feel like you mattered.
If I’d had any money, I’d have written the university a check myself.
Don Wade is a native of Kansas City and a former feature writer for The Kansas City Star and sports reporter for The Commercial Appeal. His column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News.