DREAM JOB: Tonya Johnson returns to her alma mater as head coach after helping LSU to its first NCAA Final Four volleyball appearance more than three decades ago

LSU first-year volleyball coach Tonya Johnson Photo by: Gus Stark

More than three decades after helping LSU to its first NCAA Final Four appearance, Tonya Johnson has returned to her alma mater as head volleyball coach as the Tigers transition from longtime coach Fran Flory.

She was a four-year letterman, winner of two Southeastern Conference championships and
a member of LSU’s first volleyball team to reach the Final Four in 1990. Now, 32 years later, life has come full circle for LSU graduate and Zachary native Tonya Johnson, who returned to her roots and took her ‘dream job’ when she was named the school’s head volleyball coach Dec. 22, 2021. She spent a total of 14 years as an assistant at the University of Texas and also was head coach for five years at Georgia Tech. Johnson talked about the past and present with Tiger Rag Magazine’s assistant editor William Weathers.

TIGER RAG: What’s your excitement level being the head coach of your alma mater?
TONYA JOHNSON: “This is absolutely my dream job. I’ve always wanted to coach since a very young age and having the opportunity to play here, I’ve dreamt about coaching here. To see that dream become a reality has been incredible. These last five months have been fast, furious and exciting. It’s just been so awesome to get ingrained into the LSU culture, the tradition here, and the pride that everybody has here that’s associated with LSU has just been incredible. I’m excited to be home. I’m excited to play in front of my family. I’m excited to coach this gifted group of young ladies we have on our team. I truly feel we have a lot to look forward to.”

TR: What’s the benefit of having your family closer to watch you coach?
TJ: My mom (Irma Johnson) is 79. That trek twice every year to Austin to see us play gets a little tiresome as she gets older. For her to come 20 minutes down the road and come and watch in the PMAC means a lot to me. To be able to see her throughout the week and not once every couple of months, that means a lot to me. My mom and I have a very special relationship. She’s my pride and joy, so I’m excited about that. She has sisters and brothers that are still here. I have a brother that’s still here. To be able to coach in front of them again and for them to be able to see that consistently means a lot to me.”

TR: When did coaching become something you wanted to pursue?
TJ: “My dad (Carl Ford) coached in the Baton Rouge area for 35 years. He taught and coached at Northwestern in Zachary and taught at McKinley High School for many years. That’s always stuck with me. I’ve always wanted to coach because he coached. I knew that immediately. I knew that in high school I would be a coach one day. To actually be able to live that out is incredible. These days you see people having three or four career changes. This is right where I want to be. I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing. I also think I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.”

TR: How was the process in becoming LSU’s new head volleyball coach?
TJ: “I had a few conversations with (Former LSU executive athletic director) Stephanie Rempe and (LSU senior associate athletic director) Miriam Segar. I’ve known Miriam a long time. She was a student-athlete here when I was a student-athlete here. To get that first initial phone call that they were interested was an exciting day for me. From there, I came on an interview right before Christmas. I was coming home for the Christmas holidays, and it made sense to get that done before the Christmas break. Once I did the interview, things happened really fast from there. I’m glad it wasn’t a long, drawn-out process.”

TR: What was your reaction to the retirement of LSU volleyball coach Fran Flory?
TJ: “The night Fran announced it, we were playing a match. I thought Fran had another year or two left in her. When I saw the announcement, I was like, ‘wow’. My phone was blowing up. I was wondering what was going on. I finally got the opportunity to talk to her. Fran coached me when I played here at LSU and I’ve worked for her in years past, so we have a really good relationship. I just think she felt it was time and felt she was ready to turn the reins over. I’m happy for her. I’m happy she’s happy, enjoying life now because she’s been doing this for so many years.”

TR: What impact or influence did Flory have on your career?
TJ: “Fran’s an incredible human being. The passion that she has for the sport, for coaching young people, is unbelievable. She’s done this a long, long time. I can remember being in college and having these coaching conversations with her about coaching in college. I’m forever grateful for her for giving me my first opportunity to coach in college. She hired me at the University of Kentucky. I’m forever indebted to her for the opportunity for getting my foot in the door. And just for being my mentor, a very good friend since I’ve been in this profession. She’s an incredible person and somebody I’ll lean on throughout this process. She’s been supportive and hands off, but always there if I need something. All I’ve got to do is pick up the phone and call her.”

TR: What’s your perception of the LSU volleyball job? The program?
TJ: “I think we have some good pieces in place. Obviously, we’re going to have to get better in some aspects of our game. We’re going to have to get bigger and more physical. That’s the goal: To make sure we get the right pieces in place to be able to build this thing and be able to win. I know what that takes. I know what that looks like, having been at Texas when (head coach) Jerritt (Elliott) was building that program and obviously coming back a second time (at Texas). We have a lot of great players from Texas. If you look at the country as a whole, Texas is one of hot beds of volleyball. We want to make sure that we get our names and faces out there and also try and keep the top kids from Louisiana in state as well. We know we’ve got some work to do. We also know that we have some good pieces in place, a good freshman class coming in and some very good transfers coming in that are going to help us get this thing started. I’m excited about that. I’m excited with the team this spring and the progress they made, how hungry they were to get better and how they’ve\ bought into the culture here. That part’s been awesome.”

TR: How did your first team meeting go?
TJ: “I remember being so impressed with them, just being all eyes and ears on me. They were
taking everything me and my staff had to say, and I think that’s important. They had this hungry looks in their eyes. They were ready to get to work, they were ready to get better and they did that this spring.”

TR: Any differences in you as a head coach this time around compared to your first time at Georgia Tech in 2009?
TJ: “Making sure we get more physical because that’s how the SEC is and that’s how it’s going to continue to look. It’s going to be that way when Texas and Oklahoma get into the league in a couple of years. We want to be able to be physical and make sure that we’re competitive night in and night out. That part will be important. From the head coaching standpoint, there was one promise that I made to myself the second time around in being a head coach. I want to do a great job of being Tonya, knowing that I didn’t need to be someone different. I need to be me and that’s helped me a ton this spring. I hope to carry that into the fall when we start to compete for Ws.”

TR: What message did you receive from LSU’s administration as an expectation of the program?
TJ: “Besides LSU being my alma mater, one of the things that was really attractive to me was the vision (LSU athletic director) Scott (Woodward) has for LSU and the fact that he’s an LSU grad himself. I know the pride he has in this program, and I know he would do anything for our athletic department to be successful. The message was, ‘We want to win.’ The message back to them was, I want to win, too. I think the vision they have for the department and what they want to accomplish are all aligned to what I think makes successful programs at a place like LSU. You just look at their hiring record, and what they’ve done in the last 10-12 months has been incredible. That part was really exciting to me.”

TR: What’s your message to fans who want to support a winner?
TR: “It’s important for people to come out and support us. Come out and cheer for our players and for our program. I think that’s going to mean a lot to our players to know the fans of LSU support them and want to be successful. I also think that we also want to make sure we graduate all of our players. That’s going to be another important thing to me, and this program has a great history of doing that. Winning will be a priority for us and we will do everything within our power to make sure we’re successful on many fronts, both on and off the court.”

TR: What will it take to build LSU into a consistent winner, capable of making deep runs in the NCAA Tournament?
TJ: “It’s going to be finding players who want to come in and work at their craft to get better. That they want to be great, not just good, but want to be great. Players that are willing to put forth the time and effort to do that. From a team aspect, buying into the culture and making sure we’re putting ourselves in the best situation to be successful by taking advantage of all of the resources that LSU has to offer.”

TR: How much are you looking forward to the recruiting aspect of the job?
TJ: “It’s been an incredible amount of pride to walk into a gym with purple and gold on, for people to see that we represent LSU. I think people feel the pride and excitement my staff and I have for being the coaches in this program. I think people feel that excitement and they feel that energy and I think ‘You people want to be a part of that.’ We have to continue to sell LSU. It’s a great university. We have great resources. We have great facilities. We want to establish ourselves as one of the best programs in the SEC and we know that’s not going to be easy. We’re willing to put forth the time and effort to make that happen.”

TR: What about your assistant coaches Jill Wilson and Kevin Inlow?
TJ: “I’m super stoked to have Jill and Kevin be a part of this. There’s no one that exudes pride and excitement about LSU more than Jill Wilson. I had the opportunity to coach her when she played here. We’ve always talked about coaching together and to see that finally come to fruition has been pretty cool. She’s one of the tireless and hardest workers in the country and one of the best recruiting coordinators in the country. I’m excited to have her along this ride with me. I know there’s no place she’d rather be than here at LSU. I had a previously coaching relationship with Kevin from being back at Texas. He’s a go getter. He brings a lot of energy. He has West Coast connections. He’s an incredible guy that understands the game and the video side of the game. They both complement what we want to do as a staff in terms of what we’re trying to build here. I’m excited to have them both here and they’ve both been awesome.”

TR: With so many new faces, what’s the complexion of your first team looking like?
TJ: “I think we’ve got some solid returners coming back, some returners with a little bit of experience on the floor. I feel like our transfers Hannah Jacobs and Josie Vondron are going to add their experience to the mix. From an experience standpoint, they’re going to add a lot to this team. We’ve got some younger kids that are going to take off and excel in our program. There’s some kids that didn’t get an opportunity to play last year either because they were freshmen or due to being injured. Having them back with a year under their belt, and having them back healthy, is going to be a big key to our success in the fall.”

TR: How bad did you want to be a head coach again?
TJ: “This is the only job I would have left Texas for. My former boss Jerritt Elliott knew that. His comment to me was that he knew this was the only place that he would ever lose me to. He was very supportive and understood. He knows how much I love LSU and how much being back close to home and being close to my mom means to me. It’s the only school I would have left Texas for.”

TR: Seems like things have come back full circle with you being the head coach at LSU?
TJ: “I’ve been very lucky. I think you see often times in the coaching world where coaches have a lot of stops. I’ve had a few stops, but I’ve only worked for two people in my entire coaching career and that’s Fran Flory and Jerritt Elliott. To me, those two entrusted me to help them build their programs and that means a lot to me. I think I’ve been very fortunate in that regard not to have had many stops, but I’ve had great stops at great schools, and I’ve had great experiences that I can bring with me to this incredible job of being the head coach at LSU.”

TR: What’s it going to be like in August to officially walk out for your first game?
TJ: “It’s going to be incredible. What’s it going to feel like when we walk out for that first match? I’m just excited. I’m excited to see us in uniform, to see us go out and compete.”

TR: How significant is it for African Americans for you to get this job?
TJ: “There aren’t many African American head coaches in Division I volleyball. That’s another thing when I took this job and I think that’s important for little Black girls to see. You can be anything that you want to be, and our sport is growing with the number of African Americans that are playing the game today. From where it was 25 years ago to where it is today when I got in this sport, the numbers are significantly higher and that’s awesome to watch. I’m so proud when I’m walking around the courts at the convention center and I’m seeing more people playing that look like me and that’s an incredible feeling. To see that the game has grown that way and that there are more African Americans playing.”

TR: Do you reminisce about your playing career and the success the program experienced?
TJ: “It was an incredible experience. If I could go back and do it all over again I would. Playing here and wearing the purple and gold and playing with my teammates night in and night out, was no other place I would have rather been. Those are my teammates for life. We went to battle every day. We had each other’s back and to have the success that we did just proves how hard we worked. We earned that. To be the first team to go the Final Four for LSU volleyball was an incredible experience and for them to go again in 1991. Those are people I keep in touch with weekly. A lot of them coach club, so I see them when I’m out recruiting. It was a pretty special feeling, one that I’ll never forget.”

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William Weathers

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