Last week, I wrote about a long-time administrator in sports who was in charge during a time of great changes. This week, I’m doing it again.
Last week, it was about the late Dale Farmer, the long-time director of the Delaware Secondary School Athletic Association and the man at the helm when high school sports in Delaware changed dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s.
This week, it’s about Edgar Johnson, who was the director of athletics at the University of Delaware for 25 years, from 1984-2009, and was just elected to the UD Sports Hall of Fame. He, too, was in charge during a time of great change and growth.
Like Farmer, Johnson worked behind the scenes and tried to avoid the spotlight. Like Farmer, Johnson believed in running a smooth-sailing ship and avoiding as many boat-rocking waves as possible. And, like Farmer, Johnson was an athlete and coach before he became an administrator (he is one of the most decorated swimmers in Delaware history), so he understood sports from the perspective of somebody who has competed at a high level and not somebody who has only sat behind a desk.
But the biggest similarity between those two long-time administrators was the way they guided their organizations through very different eras.
During Johnson’s long tenure as athletics director, Delaware athletics went from being basically a mom and pop operation to where it is now, when it seems as if marketing and licensing are as important as winning. When Johnson started his professional career at Delaware, the sports teams were led by coaches who had held their positions seemingly forever. Now, a new and much younger breed has taken over as the old timers retire or get fired. There was a stability in the coaching staffs back then that just isn’t there anymore, and you have to believe Johnson’s steadying influence was a reason so many stayed in Newark for so long.
The coaching profession is usually a revolving door and a coach’s resume can list a dozen stops before he or she is through. But in Johnson’s 25 years the Blue Hens had just two football coaches (Tubby Raymond and K.C. Keeler), two baseball coaches (Bob Hannah and Jim Sherman), two tennis coaches (Roy Rylander and Laura Travis), two women’s basketball coaches (Joyce Perry and Tina Martin), one men’s lacrosse coach (Bob Shillinglaw) and, well, you get the picture.
But despite that stability, Johnson also steered the Blue Hens’ athletic department through many transformations. During his tenure, Delaware played in four different conferences – East Coast Conference, North Atlantic Conference, America East Conference and the Hens’ current home in the Colonial Athletic Association. Plus for several years Delaware football played in the Yankee Conference and Atlantic 10 Conference before joining the CAA. That’s a lot of moving around. And Johnson was in command when Delaware’s athletic facilities dramatically improved in the 1990s and the Blue Hens finally moved into the modern era. The highlight of that, of course, was the move in 1992 from dreary Delaware Field House to the shiny, new Bob Carpenter Center, aka “The Bob,” which is the centerpiece of UD’s sports complex.
Another important part of Johnson’s reign as AD – throughout it, the Blue Hens maintained a strong connection to their loyal fans, and those fans felt like they were part of the Delaware experience. That family feeling faded badly after Johnson retired in 2009, although it seems as if the new administration is intent on bringing it back.
Johnson and I clashed more than once during his time as athletic director and my time as a sports writer and he never understood the enthusiasm so many people – myself included – had for initiating annual athletic competitions between the state’s two Division I-AA colleges, Delaware and Delaware State. But it was during Johnson’s tenure that history was made and the two schools finally met in a regular-season football game, which opened the door for competition in other sports.
The Hall of Fame isn’t the first time Delaware has recognized Johnson’s contributions to its athletic department – UD had already by instituted the Edgar Johnson Award, which is given every year to the men’s senior athlete who “best exemplifies the characteristics of hard work, dedication, fairness, and striving for excellence.”
So even though many Blue Hens fans don’t appreciate his impact or even know his name, Edgar Johnson was perhaps the most important person in Delaware athletics over the past quarter century and nobody has ever been more deserving of selection to its Hall of Fame.