OC's Johnson follows his father into NAIA tournament

OC sophomore center Derek Johnson will play for the Eagles in the NAIA Division I tournament, 20 years after his father, Darrel Johnson, coached Oklahoma City University to a second straight NAIA title.

By Murray Evans
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (March 14, 2012) – As Derek Johnson and his Oklahoma Christian teammates climbed the ladder to cut down the net after the Eagles won the Sooner Athletic Conference tournament championship, his father, Darrel, stood off to the side, drinking in the scene.

The emotion was obvious on the elder Johnson’s face and in his voice – not just because he enjoyed watching his son’s team win, but because he knew exactly what the Eagles were feeling at that moment.

Twenty years after Darrel Johnson coached Oklahoma City University to a 38-0 record and a second straight NAIA Division I title, Derek Johnson will play in the same tournament for OC. The Eagles (20-12) will play fourth-seeded Concordia (Calif.) (26-7) in the first round on Thursday at 12:30 p.m. at Municipal Auditorium.

“I’ve talked to him a little bit about it,” Derek Johnson said of the experience of competing in the NAIA tournament. “His whole thing is that it’s a really memorable experience and you’ll really enjoy it.”

Derek Johnson, a sophomore from The Woodlands, Texas, who starts at center and averages 5.6 points and 2.8 rebounds per game for OC, was born in November 1990, not long after his father became the coach at OCU. When OCU won the NAIA District 9 title and qualified for the national tournament, Darrel and Derek’s mother left their baby behind with Darrel’s parents – the first time since Derek had been born that they’d been apart from him.

With a team led by Eric Manuel, Mark Chambers and Tony Terrell, OCU capped a 35-3 season with a win over Central Arkansas in the title game, and the team then known as the Chiefs cut down the nets at nearby Kemper Arena. The next season, OCU went 38-0 and won its second straight title, again beating Central Arkansas.

“Those were some great teams,” OC coach Dan Hays said. “We took our share of losses against them.”

Darrel Johnson said when he first took the OCU job – succeeding the legendary Abe Lemons – he “had no idea it was a championship-caliber team. We had a 6-foot-4 center. A walk-on, Michael Berry, was a starter. We had a couple of guys who could shoot it and Eric Manuel. It was a team that overachieved and peaked at the right time and played hard and played together.”

Coached by his father, Derek Johnson starred in high school at The Woodlands Christian Academy in suburban Houston, leading his team to two Texas Class 3A private-school titles. He started his college career at NCAA Division I Evansville, but a nagging knee injury and homesickness led him to want to play closer to home.

Darrel Johnson had moved to Edmond, Okla., by that point and contacted Hays, whom he’d known for years.

“I’ve always had such a respect for (OC) and coach Hays,” he said. “We had some battles during the years and I always thought his teams were hard to play against. His teams were prepared and, more important to me as a father, was the type of young men that he brought into his program. They were the type of young men you want your son to be around. That was key for me and Derek.”

Derek Johnson has few memories of his father’s time at OCU, although he’s heard his father talk about his teams from that era. Darrel Johnson’s memories are a bit clearer and said he sees many of the same characteristics of his OCU teams in this year’s OC squad, which was seeded seventh entering the SAC tournament before reeling off three wins over top-13 teams in as many nights.

“The talent level is underestimated with this team,” he said. “They’ve lost so many close games. Part of being a good coach and program is staying with what you believe in and not giving up and that’s what coach Hays and this team have done. When you have players who want to succeed, the chemistry will come. It’s a talented bunch.”

Derek Johnson noted that the Eagles qualified for the national tournament the hard way, winning three SAC tournament games most people didn’t expect them to win.

“That was something else,” Derek Johnson said. “(Oklahoma Baptist) was ranked No. 1 in the nation and we beat them. We can beat anybody. This whole year our team has stuck close together through the tough times and the adversity. You learn from that. It’s made us a better team.”

As he has most of the season, Darrel Johnson – who’s now a scout for the NBA’s New Orleans Hornets – will be there to watch.

“There is no greater feeling than watching your son be a part of something successful like that,” he said. “Our teams (at OCU) were great. We had a couple of great seasons. I’ve been with teams that overachieved and underachieved and have won championships and not won, but there’s something special about seeing your son be successful.”