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Published on May 2nd, 2018 | by Millennium Magazine Staff

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SC State Trailblazer Charlene Johnson Enters MEAC Hall of Fame

There’s a line in the song “The Gambler” that says, “Never count your winnings while you’re sitting at the table. There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.’’

Apparently, 2018 MEAC Hall of Fame inductee Charlene Johnson subscribes to that theory when it comes to her career accomplishments. That’s why she was taken by surprise when she learned of her Hall of Fame selection.

“I was shocked,’’ said Johnson, who spent 31 years as a student-athlete, coach and administrator at South Carolina State. “It caught me totally off-guard, and that’s putting it mildly. I don’t look at my resume. I probably couldn’t tell you half of what I’ve accomplished or what they are honoring me for, because I’m on to the next thing. I just always try to do my very best. Once a project is done, I’m on to the next thing. I hadn’t sat down and thought about the things I’ve done. When I read it, I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good.’’’

Excellent is a more appropriate adjective to describe her accomplishments at South Carolina State, which earned her a spot in the 2018 MEAC Hall of Fame class along with Howard University quarterback Jay Walker, Morgan State volleyball athlete Ja Nina Lee, South Carolina State defensive tack Chartric Darby and Bethune-Cookman safety Nick Collins. The class was enshrined during a brunch at the Norfolk (Va.) Sheraton Waterside Hotel on Thursday, March 8.

Johnson helped the South Carolina State women’s basketball team win the 1979 Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) National Championship as a student-athlete. She later returned to her alma mater and coached the volleyball and women’s tennis teams. She led both programs to conference championships and was named MEAC Coach of the Year in each sport. Following a successful coaching career, she moved into athletic administration, serving as Senior Woman Administrator, Interim Director of Athletics twice and Director of Athletics before retiring two years ago.

Johnson came to South Carolina State following a solid, but not spectacular, two-year career at Fairfax High in Allendale, S.C. She didn’t begin playing basketball until her junior year because her mother insisted that she focus on academics, and she wanted to be sure her daughter was mature enough academically and, in the world, to play sports. Johnson had learned the game playing against her brother and male cousins in the family’s backyard and was impressive enough for South Carolina State coach Willie Simon to offer her a scholarship.

“I went to South Carolina State feeling pretty good about being a college player,’’ Johnson said. “But in pickup games, everybody could shoot and rebound and dribble. I’m like, ‘Oh, my God. What have I stepped into?’ We became a strong sisterhood.’’

Johnson rose to the level of the competition that she was up against and became an integral member of the Lady Bulldogs as they won the AIAW national title her junior season.

“That was incredible for a group of HBCU women to travel to Fargo, N.D., and just actually be in the number,’’ she said. “An African-American gentleman took us on a tour. Here we are from South Carolina taking a tour in Fargo, N.D., knee-high in snow. That’s a memory I will always have.’’

That the Lady Bulldogs would win the national championship was a forgone conclusion, at least in their minds.

“We played basketball back then,’’ she said. “I don’t know if we even thought about anymore than going out and giving your best. At the end of the game, we always expected to win. That’s not being cocky. We prepared. Coach Simon and (assistant) Coach (Lyman) Foster really had us prepared to compete against just about anybody. We expected to do well. When the buzzer sounded, we were ecstatic.’’

Johnson said most of the team members had never been in a swimming pool, but when they returned to the hotel following their 73-68 victory against the University of Dayton, they all jumped in the pool to celebrate. The AIAW governed college athletics for women from 1972-82 when the NCAA, uccumbing to the pressures of Title IX, entered the picture. South Carolina State was the only HBCU to win an AIAW title.

“We were trailblazers for sure,’’ she said.

Johnson returned to her alma mater in 1982 as head coach of the volleyball and women’s tennis programs. She had spent the previous two years coaching volleyball and softball, among other sports, on the high school level. The transition was a smooth one.

“I didn’t put any undue pressure on myself,’’ she said. “I knew I was a basketball player. But I understood the concept of having to get good players. That meant recruiting, which was new to me. But I always had great people who helped guide the way for me. In high school (volleyball), it’s bump, set and hopefully you get it over the net. But in college it was so much more fast-paced. I’m like, ‘What in the world is going on?’ I soon realized I had to find some players.’’

Johnson was named MEAC volleyball Coach of the Year in 1990 after leading the Lady Bulldogs to their first conference championship.

“Winning that MEAC volleyball championship was certainly one of the highlight of my coaching career,’’ she said.

Johnson, South Carolina State’s first full-time women’s coach, was the 1986 MEAC Coach of the Year in women’s tennis as the Lady Bulldogs won the conference championship.

“Coming from Allendale, S.C., Fairfax (High School) to be exact,’’ she said, “I didn’t know much at all about tennis. Again, I recognized the fact that if we’re going to win, I had to go out and find some players. We beat the bushes and found some pretty good players. We were pretty successful at that as well, I guess. I had absolutely no experience in tennis. But the job was coaching volleyball and tennis. I had learned the basics, being a health and physical education major, and I was given the necessary tools to go out and recruit players.’’

The rest is history.

“All of that is still remains a mystery to me,’’ Johnson said. “But we had some really, really good players.’’

Johnson transitioned to athletic administration after serving as assistant women’s basketball coach and Senior Woman Administrator, thanks to Dr. Willis Ham, South Carolina State’s first full-time Director of Athletics who held the position from 1980-90.

“You gotta understand,’’ Johnson said, “some of the jobs and titles, I didn’t even know what they were. I had great people who helped me along the way. I followed Dr. Ham everywhere he went. When he went to the restroom, I stood outside the door for him to come out. He was just that good.’’

Johnson became South Carolina State’s first female Director of Athletics when Dr. Carl Carpenter, who was named interim president in 1992, appointed her to that position on an interim basis. Carpenter’s successor, Dr. Andrew Hugine, named Johnson to the position on a permanent basis.

“For them to have the kind of confidence in me to lead the athletics program is still just a wonder to me.’’ Johnson said. “I kinda grew up there. I was 23 years old when I started coaching at South Carolina State. My seniors were just two years younger than me. For them to have the level of respect for me and confidence in me even leading up to being athletic director was surreal to me.’’

Johnson said the crowning achievement of during her years at South Carolina State has nothing to do with victories or championships that she accumulated while coaching or the strides the various sports made while she was director of athletics.

“It might sound cliché-ish,’’ she said, “but the thing I am most proud of is the student-athletes who have graduated and gone on to do great things. When I look of some of my players who are coaching now and working in all sorts of occupations, I smile because your sport only lasts for a short while. You’ve only got four years, maybe, in most cases to play that particular sport. But you have a lifetime ahead of you to be productive. My student-athletes, not only the ones I coached but the ones who were there when I was athletics director, to see them come back (for homecoming) is such a joy.’’

Johnson has reconnected with Dr. Carpenter, who is president at Vorhees College. She is Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Services and Director of Athletics at the Denmark, S.C., school, whose men’s basketball team recently qualified for the NAIA Tournament.

Johnson, whose father died when she was five, said she will forever be indebted to her late mother and her brother for the sacrifices they made for her so that she could have the career that she has had.

She recalls how when she was doing her student teaching, her mother gave up her car so Johnson would have transportation. Her brother, a promising high school athlete who likely could have played on the college level, took a job to supplement the family’s income and allow her attend college.

“I owe them so much,’’ she said.

Johnson said her husband and their children sacrificed tremendously as well as she was away from home a great deal of the time.

“They shared me a lot,’’ she said, adding that she recalls helping with home by phone while competing in a volleyball tournament in Madison, Wisc. “I do have some regrets, but you have to strike a happy balance.’’

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