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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Coach and the General

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Spencer native, United State Air Force Brigadier General Michelle Johnson (back right) stands with Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summit and Johnson's sons, Preston (front left) and Mitchell, Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009, as Johnson spent the day as a guest coach to Summit's basketball team.
Spencer native Michelle Johnson plays 'Coach for a Day' at Tennessee

When you've got the title "Brigadier General" attached to your name, and when you were the very first female Wing Commander in the history of the United States Air Force Academy, there are very few times when you should feel like the second-most accomplished woman in a room.

Sunday, Feb. 22 was one of those days for Br. Gen. Michelle Johnson.

The Spencer native and mother of two spent the day alongside legendary coach Pat Summit and the Tennessee women's basketball team, acting as 'Coach for a Day,' in Tennessee's guest coach program.

"I looked at that picture and thought, 'Wow, can this be happening?'" Johnson questioned, as if living out a dream, as she talked about a photo of her with Summit and the team.

"It was a great experience. People use the phrase 'world class' about people and organizations a lot, but Pat Summit really is that. She has a far-reaching strength," said Johnson of the all-time winningest coach, male or female, in NCAA history.

"You can tell that she's been doing this for 35 years, and that she's built something that's going somewhere and that's been somewhere," Johnson added. "The expectations there are sky-high. They're not allowed to have an average season."

At Tennessee, in the women's basketball program, average isn't even in the vocabulary.

Under Summit, the Volunteers have won eight national championships. They've only experienced failure 192 times in 1,197 games in Summit's 3 1/2 decades, good for an astounding 84-percent winning percentage.

Average is a word Summit and the Volunteers threw away a long time ago.

"'Excellence is a habit'. That's the sign over the doorway in their arena. That's the intensity, that's the nature of it. That's the program," Johnson said.

"I admire excellence. I grew up cheering for the Big Ten and I watch Iowa teams closely. I'm not an SEC fan per se, but I very much admire excellence, so it's hard not to be a fan," she added. "It's a good program, it's a clean program."

A woman who has mastered the art of flying numerous military aircrafts, and one who earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, Johnson fits right in with the Tennessee program.

Johnson began what has become a 28-year military career after finishing graduate school in the early 80s. She was promoted to Major by 1991 and Colonel in 1999, having spent much of the 90s deployed to Abu Dhabi United Arab Emirates where she flew jumbo tankers out of a base in the Persian Gulf. She's been a Brigadier General since 2005.

From 1992-94, Johnson served as the Air Force aide to the president, working for both President George H.W. Bush and President Clinton.

Not bad for a woman from northwest Iowa who entered the Air Force Academy at a time when women could not be promoted and treated the same as men.

"It's how America works. People from all walks of life come together and offer different perspectives. Every time I'm in (Washington D.C.), I marvel that I'm able to be a part of it," Johnson said.

Johnson knows a thing or two about basketball, too, having played at Air Force as a walk-on after being an All-State selection during her Spencer career. In fact, it was her performance on the basketball court that led her to become a pilot.

"An officer at the Air Force Academy stopped me and said, 'Cadet Johnson, I've seen you play basketball. You are a warrior. In the Air Force, warriors are pilots. Why aren't you in the flying program'," she recalled. "I decided to give it a try and it's turned into a career that I never could have imagined.

Johnson's life experiences that led her to becoming a high-ranking female in the Air Force provided a good fit for a message to Summit's young team, which includes seven freshmen.

United State Air Force Brigadier General Michelle Johnson, a Spencer native, addresses the Tennessee women's basketball team as she acts as 'Coach for a Day' on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009.
"Coach wanted me to talk to the players about overcoming adversity. She thought I could help the players by talking about some of my experiences," said Johnson, who, along with her classmates at the academy, helped pave the way for women in the Air Force.

"It was only the second women's class ever, so we weren't really accepted. No matter if it's sports, flying an airplane, business or life in general, you have to fight for things," Johnson said. "I was a bit naive about how people can act when things are different."

During the experience at Tennessee, Johnson and her family, which includes her husband, retired Air Force Major John Hargreaves, and her twins sons, Preston and Mitchell, spent the morning of Feb. 22 with the Volunteers during a pre-game shoot-around. They spent the evening watching Tennessee defeat Mississippi State 82-68 -- win No. 1,002 for Summit.

"It was a real treat for our family," said Johnson, who added that her 6-year-old boys enjoyed "cheering for the orange girls" and playing with Tennessee's mascot, Smokey the Dog. "They didn't get all the nuances, but they had a lot of fun."

The experience wasn't the first time Johnson and Summit had met. The two were introduced at an Academic All-American Hall of Fame banquet two years ago. Johnson also spoke about leadership in sports at a dinner during the women's Final Four -- where Summit undoubtedly had her team preparing for another national championship run.

"I would just say what's really gratifying about this opportunity was the respect -- to be in a system where people respect each other," Johnson said. "They have respected values that are universal. It's not just an Iowa set of values or a military set of values, it's a universal thing, it's the fabric of our society. It's going to sound very sentimental and sappy, but it's a very good sign about our country."

Hargreaves, in an e-mail, described Summit using a parallel to the world he and his wife have known for three decades, saying, "on the court she conducts her team with the tenacity of a Parris Island Marine Corps drill sergeant."

Off the court, however, Johnson says it's easy to see how Summit has endeared herself to so many young women throughout her 35 years.

"The thing that doesn't get said a lot is that she's very warm. It's an engaging intensity, It doesn't have an edge. It's not mean. It's constructive," she said. "As a parent, you love watching people who relate well to kids. It's tough love.

"She really is a teacher," Johnson added. "The players make input and write on the white board as to what they need to do next. She makes sure they're getting it. When you're a senior, you're almost like an assistant coach. It's not all one-way with her. It's tough, but it's not all one-way."

As she stood side-by-side with one of the greatest coaches in the history of basketball, not once, however, did Johnson consider that Summit might be the one thinking she's second in command.

"Did you ever think Pat Summit went home and said, 'Hey, I met a general today'," Johnson's former base commander in Kansas asked her when Johnson shared the story of her trip to Tennessee.

"I guess I never really thought about it like that," Johnson admitted.

"I am from Iowa, so I don't make too much of myself," Johnson added. "It's been a remarkable journey, it really has. I do try to step back and keep it in perspective."

Johnson's home life -- surely one spent chasing after a pair of 6-year-olds -- helps keep her grounded in the roots that were entrenched in her personality since her youth.

"My kids know I work at the Pentagon. They'll look over and say, 'There's your office'. So, the Pentagon's my office," Johnson smiled as she described her sons' innocent view of their mom's job.

"My husband used to be a pilot, too, but now he gets to play Mr. Mom. That's a blessing," Johnson said. "He really does it all. I'm basically married to MacGyver."

Behind her family's support, Johnson has been able to take her career to new heights.

Mitchell Johnson (pictured) and his brother, Preston, the twin sons of Michelle Johnson, were entertained by the cheerleaders and Tennessee's mascot "Smokey the Dog" as their mom sat behind the Tennessee bench in the Volunteers' 82-68 win over Mississippi State.
Johnson, like Summit and her program, stands out as a model of success in a highly competitive nation.

Her life stands as a vivid blueprint for achieving the improbable, for following dreams and shining through in the face of adversity.

As great as the experience with Summit may have been for the Johnson and her family, the real winners in Johnson's day as guest coach may have been the Tennessee players, who stood among a duo who have helped pave the way for the women of tomorrow to follow in their footsteps.

The day may have felt like a dream to her, but the reality is, Johnson measures up right alongside Summit.

Even if Johnson is still a humble Iowa girl at heart.

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