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Quiet Unknown Overcomes Initial Opposition : Athletic Director Helps Lift 49er Gloom

November 12, 1987|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

In his quiet style, Corey Johnson is making an impact, which is what he intended when he arrived seven months ago as athletic director at California State University, Long Beach.

He came as an unknown from the University of Miami (Fla.) and was assigned the enormous task of lifting the gloom that was shrouding 49er sports.

Many of the school's boosters were angered by Johnson's selection. They were mourning because John Kasser--suave, flamboyant, persuasive and with Southern California roots--had quit as athletic director. And now here was this outsider, a low-key, almost shy fellow who was born on a Minnesota farm and who admits, "I'm not a rah-rah person."

How could he possibly be the key to raising the money that would be needed to keep the 49er football program alive?

But the boosters were unaware on that April day that Johnson already had the 49ers in his heart.

"I felt pride the first day I was here," Johnson said last week. "I thought I could be a contributor."

He quickly established himself as his own man when he named Joe Harrington of George Mason University as 49er basketball coach when the boosters wanted local favorite Ed Ratleff. The amount of research and assessment that went into his decision established him as a hard worker.

He immediately showed that he was responsive to coaches' needs. Track Coach Ralph Lindeman credits Johnson with getting track reinstated after that sport had been dropped a day before Johnson's arrival.

Johnson has come across as solid and sincere, traits those who know him say he has always possessed.

"I'm a people person," he said. And people have responded.

Last month, university President Stephen Horn announced that football would continue next year and beyond because $337,324 of the $500,000 needed by next summer to pay for scholarships had been assured, much of it in community donations.

"If (Johnson) hadn't picked up the ball, our entire fund-raising effort could have come to a screeching halt," said Joe Saucedo, president-elect of the 49er Athletic Foundation. "He rolled up his sleeves, met boosters, made key contacts. Had it not been for him, there would be fewer boosters supporting the program."

Johnson takes no credit. "It's a compliment to the staff, to the people who have worked so hard, who stuck with it," he said. "I'm not pleased with myself yet. I'd have liked to have seen all the $500,000 raised by now."

Johnson, 39, looks solid, too, weighing 247 pounds and with the blocky build of the football lineman he once was. His hair, already gray, distinguishes him as much as his suits. He smiles easily.

"He's very laid-back . . . no, that's not the right term, he's soft-spoken, but he's dynamic," said Howard Schnellenberger, former Miami football coach who hired Johnson five years ago as a recruiting coordinator.

"He won't make a lot of noise and fanfare--I don't think I ever heard him raise his voice--but he gets a lot of things accomplished," Schnellenberger, now coach at the University of Louisville, said by telephone.

One of Johnson's closest friends is Seth Greenberg, whom Johnson lured from Miami to be a 49er assistant basketball coach.

"He's the most sincere person I've ever met," Greenberg said of Johnson. "Some people coming into this job would try to force themselves on people. Corey's going to be himself and let people get to know him. He's confident enough to know that people will like him and get behind us.

"Corey is just genuine. If he's watching a movie and it's a tear-jerker, you're going to see tears. He's reserved and modest but there still is a competitive side to him. The only way he's changed from Miami is that he's more assertive and a little more aggressive."

As assistant athletic director at Miami, Johnson made sure that facilities were ready for games.

"He could get groundskeepers to do anything for him," Greenberg said. "They worked late hours because they liked Corey."

Johnson has been well-liked since he was growing up on his father Eddie's farm near Franklin, Minn., a town of 500 where school closes on the first day of hunting season and where New Year's Eve is a time to gather for card parties.

"He got along with everybody, young or old, rich or poor," Eddie Johnson said from his farm.

And Elaine Sather, whose husband, Elmer, is retired from the produce business in Franklin, remembered, "All thought the world of Corey."

Johnson "craved to do a little bit better" than staying on his father's farm, so he left. He played football--ordinarily, he said--at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., and graduated in 1971. At high schools in Sioux Falls and Wisconsin, he coached, taught biology and got his first taste of athletic directing.

He discovered he enjoyed organizations and the "intricacies of putting things together."

He went on to the University of Iowa as a graduate assistant and then in 1978 to UC Berkeley, where he spent four years as an assistant football coach and recruiter.

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