Hanging above the coach's desk, next to the dog-cared snapshots from Vietnam, is a framed copy of the Dec. 10, 1965, cover of TIME. The billing reads THE BATTLEFIELD IS A LONELY PLACE. You don't have to tell coach Bob Johnson that. On the Time cover, directly beneath those words, is a portrait of the coach's father, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Harold K. Johnson, the four stars on his shoulder visible from all corners of the tiny office. Bob Johnson, also a leader of men, has spent his career in a lonely place of his own, searching for five stars.
For the last 11 years Bob Johnson has been the basketball coach at Emory & Henry College, in Emory, Va. To reach the school, according to Johnson's players, "you drive to the end of the world and hang a left." Many young men never make it that far—or last long once they get there.
The grunts who do survive Johnson's basketball boot camp bark "Yessir!" and "Nosir!" and synchronize their watches to "Coach Johnson time." They rise before the sun. They win 20 games a season. But mostly they learn how to thrive after their basketball careers because they have been taught to be ghost busters, like their coach.
Johnson, 46, has been busting ghosts ever since he served a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1968, just another chess piece in the hands of his father, one of the grand masters of the war. Johnson survived a year of heavy combat, but like so many other Vietnam vets, he returned to the States an emotional casualty. "All I cared about was where my next beer was coming from," he says. "I was haunted, drifting, aimless. I had to find my calling, and the best role model anyone could have was my dad." General Johnson was a highly decorated veteran of World War II and a survivor of the Bataan Death March.
February 8, 1993
It was his father's grit, his own skewed sense of humor and the encouragement of his wife, Sherry, and his children, Casey and Leigh, that led Johnson to straighten out his life. He had played high school basketball and was an assistant coach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y., for three years before accepting his first head coaching job, at E&H in 1981, just two weeks before the season opener. For the first month, before finding a house, Johnson slept in the school's old gym, where he claims he was occasionally visited by the ghost of a Confederate soldier. But almost nothing could have been as frightening as the E&H basketball team, which had endured 13 consecutive losing years.
Johnson has nurtured the Wasps with a firm hand. He holds team practice most days at 6 a.m., and each year he orders his players back to school the day after Christmas. Because the dorms are locked during the holidays, his players sleep on bedrolls in the gym. "We pay $12,000 a year to get up before dawn, run around the gym like maniacs and get yelled at," says senior guard Derek Elmore. "Obviously we are always asking ourselves, Do I really want to play basketball this bad?"
"I see a lot of Bob Knight in the way Coach rides us," says sophomore forward Shannon Archer. "Except Coach wouldn't throw a chair; he'd probably throw a player."
The Wasps endure this regimen because Johnson has revived their program with five straight 20-win seasons and three straight NCAA Division III tournament bids. "He has rebuilt with aggressive, in-your-face basketball," says Hal Nunnally, the basketball coach at Old Dominion conference rival Randolph-Macon, in Ashland, Va. "His team is relentless, reflecting what he learned in the military."
Elmore swears there is also a reasonable side to Johnson. He remembers the morning when he was a freshman and woke up at 7:20 for a 7:00 team meeting at which he was to deliver a speech. "I thought about quitting right there," says Elmore. But he eventually showed up at the meeting and spoke, albeit in a shaky voice. As Elmore left, Johnson held the door for him, smiled and said, "Son, you need to work on your public speaking."
Of the 12 recruits who started with Elmore as freshmen, only five remain. The coach has given these seniors a lesson in survival. Two years ago, when doctors told Johnson he had cancer of the kidney, he shaved his head and told his team he was "going to war." Five days after surgery to remove his right kidney, Johnson was back riding his troops from the sideline. "I'm trying to make a difference in my kids' lives, on and off the court," he says. "I want each guy to understand that if your wife cracks you over the head with a frying pan one morning, you still have to go to work that day. Don't you?"