Johnson's Legacy: Improvement Amid Cutbacks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Corey Johnson, who was named athletic director at Colorado State University on Tuesday, leaves a Cal State Long Beach program that is markedly improved from when he arrived nearly five years ago.

Johnson, who resigned Monday as Long Beach athletic director, apparently had feared the university would eventually downgrade or drop its football program because of budget shortfalls. A campus fact-finding panel recommended such action in June.

"Corey's goal in athletics was to be associated with a solid football program," 49ers Associate Athletic Director Steve Holton said. "I think he made that clear. He was trying to solve our problem here, to put football on a firm footing. But I think in his mind Colorado State is a (better situation)."

Johnson succeeds Oval Jaynes, who left Colorado State on Aug. 13 to become the athletic director at Pittsburgh.

Colorado State, located in Ft. Collins, is a member of the Western Athletic Conference. The football team, which plays home games in a 30,000-seat stadium, is coached by Earl Bruce, a former Ohio State coach. Last year the Rams played in the Freedom Bowl in Anaheim, where they defeated Oregon, 32-31.

Cal State Long Beach plays at Veterans Stadium, an off-campus facility that seats 12,500. But the 49ers averaged only 4,697 fans for six home games last season and the team has been outscored, 97-27, in two games this year, both losses.

Johnson, 43, who immediately assumed his new duties, reportedly will earn about the same salary he did at Long Beach--about $104,000 a year. He is also expected to receive a housing allowance, car and membership in a country club.

Attorney Don Dyer, a longtime 49ers fund-raiser, said Johnson's move appears to be "a lateral one to me." Dyer, a critic of Johnson, said the former athletic director was using Long Beach as a steppingstone to a more prestigious job.

In the past year, Johnson's name frequently came up when there was an opening for an athletic director at a major university. Johnson, who was a football lineman at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., previously had been an assistant football coach at UC Berkeley and assistant athletic director at Miami (Fla.).

In a prepared statement released by Colorado State, Johnson said: "Colorado State has stability, a stable conference, a growing conference and a conference that has won a national championship in football. I know most of the (athletic directors) in the conference and know that they have solid programs. I think we can challenge for conference titles in all sports."

Among other improvements that Johnson engineered in Long Beach, the university is set to break ground as early as mid-December on a $15-million athletic complex that will house a badly needed gymnasium. Johnson was instrumental in securing state funds to pay for all but $3 million of the facility.

"He made a real contribution to this university," Cal State Long Beach President Curtis L. McCray said. "In the just short of five years he was here, he brought stability to the athletic program."

Several athletic programs prospered under Johnson, including football. He hired the late George Allen as coach and Allen had a 6-5 season in 1990, the university's first winning record in five seasons. He also hired baseball Coach Dave Snow, who has guided the 49ers to the College World Series twice in three seasons.

Johnson also brought in Joe Harrington, who coached the basketball team to two appearances in the National Invitation Tournament--their first postseason appearances in eight years--before he left for a coaching job at Colorado. The university also has won national titles in men's and women's volleyball.

"He did a great job at Long Beach, which was not an easy place to be," Harrington said. "His being hired at Colorado State will bring out just how good an athletic director he is. I'm really excited for him."

Although the athletic department's budget grew smaller each year, Johnson kept the program in the black. Fund raising increased more than 300% to about $400,000 a year, with a goal of $650,000 this year.

Johnson angered boosters in March when he cut men's and women's swimming, men's tennis and golf to help the university trim a state-mandated $15 million from its budget. Golf was later reinstated thanks to a private fund-raising drive, but the decision to cut programs hurt Johnson's standing with longtime boosters such as Dyer.

By June, when a campus fact-finding committee recommended that football either be dropped or downgraded, Johnson was mentioned as a candidate for several jobs, although he acknowledged pursuing only those at UC Berkeley, Maryland and Pittsburgh.

"I'm just glad it's over," said Dyer about the departure of Johnson. "Hopefully we'll get someone in there that cares about Long Beach State.

"I want to hire somebody that cares about Long Beach State first. Someone with a love for running that athletic program rather than someone who looks at it as if it's just another line on a resume."

Harrington said that Johnson's move was probably motivated by career decisions that most business people face. "Anybody in any business always has an open mind about moving up and he'd done that," he said.

McCray wants to appoint an interim athletic director by the end of the week. Holton, an associate athletic director in charge of the 49er Athletic Foundation, a fund-raising organization, expressed his interest in the position to McCray on Monday. Also expected to be considered are associate athletic directors Bob Donlan, Dan Radakovich and Kay Don.

McCray expects to begin a national search for a new athletic director in January.

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