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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Coach Milton Johnson, A Man Without Reproach

Contributed By Tom Bennett

Budgets for athletics were tight in 1962. That summer, basketball coach and athletic director Milton Johnson of Chipola Junior College drove our Bluebird bus, with our baseball team, gloves, bats and balls, to Miami for the annual Florida junior college baseball tournament.
Groveland, Fla., High had a 6-foot 7-inch, 190-pound center who had averaged 20 points and 22 rebounds his senior year in basketball. He was a rebounding vacuum cleaner and he had a seven-foot wingspan -- although not the state’s top grades. We decided to stop off there and see him. Coach took me with him as we went to the principal’s office and asked permission to speak to Austin "Red" Robbins.
"I think he’s out there in the parking lot somewhere," the principal said. Sure enough, we found the future star center for Chipola, the University of Tennessee and teams of the American Basketball Association cutting class and sitting in a vehicle smoking a cigarette.
Nothing ever perturbed Milton "Bat" Johnson, and he offered a scholarship to and signed Red, arranging for him to be in Marianna by summertime. Then we cranked the Bluebird and drove on to Miami Stadium.
He had a hands-on beginning at Chipola. In the summer of 1961, preparing for his first year as coach, Johnson received permission from the administration to rent an abandoned, one-story 1940’s brick home in Marianna. It was -- I guess still is -- about halfway between the Chipola campus and the town. This would become the dormitory of the basketball team.
Coach Johnson, Team Manager Doug Hayes and I went in with brooms and mops. We carried out the corpses of rats and squirrels. We scoured the walls. We bought 12 of the longest beds we could find in Marianna. That fall the team moved in with Doug and me.
Coach Johnson’s tiny office on the southeast corner of the Chipola gym had a desk, his chair, a typing table with a folding chair, and a filing cabinet. That little table and folding chair inches behind his head became my workspace. One day with as much ceremony as there was in 1960s Florida junior college athletics, he awarded me space in the front of the top drawer of the filing cabinet. There I began storing the scorebooks and my files with the players’ biographies and our all-time records.
For the 1962-63 basketball season, since after all we had Red Robbins arriving soon from Groveland, it was time for the school to have its first press guide of 32 pages. I typed it on stencils. The gentle lady who was President Ned Haven’s secretary – I wish I could recall her name – ran off my 32 stencils 100 times.
A newspaper printed for us a one-color, wrap-around cover for "CHIPOLA 1962-63 Basketball Handbook." This cover has posed-action photos of stars Charles Clark of Enterprise, Ala., and Gary Bryan of Malone, Fla. (Robbins not yet having proved his mettle, though prove it he would) plus the year-by-year Chipola won-lost records since 1947-48 and the team and individual records up to that time.
In March 1963, Coach Johnson drove the Bluebird with the 12 players and Doug and me from Marianna, Fla., to Hutchinson, Kan., 900 miles one way, for the national junior college tournament. We lost in the second round and never had a flat tire or breakdown on the Bluebird.
Milton Johnson was a man without reproach. I saw him get red in the face many times after turnovers or fouls, but never heard him swear or raise his voice. His courtesy to others, his bearing and temperament… these were at such a high level every moment of every day that all around him could not fail to try to emulate the man. I know I have done so ever since, and will to the day of my own departure.
Retired newspaperman Tom Bennett of North Carolina was the Indians’ student sports publicity director in 1961-63, and also was the editor-in-chief of the Chipola Papoose student newspaper in 1962-63.

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