Thursday, October 8, 2020

Documentary chronicles LeMoyne’s Coach Jerry Johnson’s legacy and 1975 national championship

If Clint Jackson hadn’t taken that half-court shot in the game against Lambuth College during the conference tournament in 1975, the season would have been over for the Magicians of LeMoyne-Owen College.

"Somebody had to take the shot,” he had said.

It was indeed a magical moment for Coach Jerry C. Johnson, who led his team to seven straight victories after beating Lambuth in overtime on the way to clenching the NCAA Division III National Championship 57-54 against Glassboro State College (now Rowan University). Hosted by Albright College, LOC finished the season 27-5.

It was the first NCAA Division III National Championship for Coach Johnson’s Magicians and the subject of an independent documentary aptly titled “1st Forgotten Champions: The Legacy of Jerry C. Johnson.”

The documentary was the brainchild of William Anderson, a former player and LOC’s current head men’s basketball coach. He collaborated with filmmaker Morreco Coleman to cobble together the life and legacy of Coach Johnson, who is now 102 years old.

We knew each other mutually through someone else and became friends,” said Coleman, a Memphian now living outside of Los Angeles. “I was working on a couple of previous projects. He expressed interest in them and asked me if I’d like to do a documentary on Jerry Johnson.”

Coleman said it took him several years to complete the film. “There were some creative differences,” he said. “Then we came to an agreement. [But then] it took a few years to collect all the data.”

“1st Forgotten Champions: The Legacy of Jerry C. Johnson” debuted at the Burbank International Film Festival in September and won the “Audience Choice Feature Film” category. The 68-minute film also aired in October at the International Black Film Festival in Nashville. The Indy Memphis Film Festival is next in late October.

The film contains interviews with Anderson, former University of Memphis head basketball coaches John Calipari and Josh Pastner, and current U of M head men’s basketball Coach Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. 

Robert Newman, Clint Jackson and others who played on the 1975 championship team laud Coach Johnson for being tactical and brilliant on and off the court. Tennessee’s Ninth Congressional District Congressman Steve Cohen also offered his perspective.

Coach Johnson is featured prominently throughout the film. “Ninety percent of the film is pretty much illustrated by Coach Jerry Johnson,” Coleman said.

With over 800 wins in 46 years as head coach of the LOC men’s basketball team, Coach Johnson is one of the most successful basketball coaches in Tennessee college sports history. 

Jackson wouldn’t dispute that fact. He couldn’t. “He’s a great man; he’s a great coach; and he’s a great molder of men,” he said. “I have a great deal of respect for him. A lot of what I am is a result of Coach Johnson.”

Jackson played small forward on the team. He was about 6-foot-3 at the time and grew a couple of inches later. What Coach Johnson instilled in him helped to mold his character, he said, and brought perspective and clarity to his life.

“The first thing he said was, ‘Develop your philosophy…the philosophy of your work, as well as your life,” said Jackson, adding that Coach Johnson mentored his athletes and taught them the rudiments of survival on and off the court.

Newman still beams and speaks tenderly when he reflects on the roster of super talent from Memphis and the other athletes from various colleges comprising that 1975 championship team.

“We had a pretty good team. That team was special. He (Coach Johnson) made us believe we could beat anybody,” said Newman, the team captain playing the guard position and winning the MVP in the NCAA tournament. He scored a total of 48 points.

Newman recalls a formidable 7-foot-1 player from Morgan State University whose reputation was far-reaching. His name was Marvin Nathaniel Webster. They called him “The Human Eraser.”

“Through Johnson’s teaching – and with him making us believe that we could do anything – we beat that team,” Newman said. Webster went on to dominate in the NBA. He died in 2009.

Jackson and Newman fared very well after their glory days at LOC. They got their start as Wildcats playing for Hamilton High School under the legendary Coach Lloyd Williams. 

Then the two friends left for Tennessee State University, where they played for Coach Ed Martin. After a stint there, the homegrown ball players landed at LOC and plied their skills under Coach Johnson. 

Newman followed Coach Johnson’s example as an educator and basketball coach for 38 years at Hamilton and Melrose high schools. So did Jackson, who retired after 36 years as an educator and coach in Memphis City Schools. He is now LOC’s athletics director.

Coach Johnson was the first African American to win the NCAA Division III National Championship and LeMoyne-Owen was the first HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) to claim the honor.

The team finally received their rings from the LOC Alumni Association in 2010 to commemorate their achievement during a halftime game between LOC and Rust College at Bruce Hall on the campus.

Coach Jerry C. Johnson retired in 2005 and racked up many successes during his 46 years as LeMoyne-Owen College’s head men’s basketball coach. “1st Forgotten Champions: The Legacy of Jerry C. Johnson” is a testament to his success.