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The quick decision that changed Britt Johnson's life

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Appalachian State University assistant coach Britt Johnson celebrates with Chandler Seagle after the catcher hit a home run against No. 5 South Carolina on Tuesday.

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By Ethan Joyce
Sports Writer

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Britt Johnson occupies a small office in the field house next to Appalachian State’s baseball stadium. The Mountaineers recruiting coordinator shares the space with the two other assistant coaches on staff.

Johnson’s desk is covered in memorabilia: His old Rocky Mount High football helmet. A mini helmet from the PapaJohns.com Bowl in 2006, when Johnson was a long snapper for the East Carolina football team. Two regional championship trophies from his time as an assistant at Division II Lander University (S.C.), and a ball from the Bearcats’ Peach Belt Conference tournament championship in 2016. There’s also a can of peanuts, wrapped up in ECU colors, given to him from a friend due to his love of the Pirates.

Those objects signify different points of his life. And so much of his past will converge on one baseball field today. 

Johnson and the Mountaineers play East Carolina in the 14th-annual Keith LeClair Classic today at 3:30 p.m. Friends have asked him if today’s matchup in Greenville will be difficult. One asked, maybe jokingly, if he would be wearing purple underwear beneath all of his black and gold. 

“No, I'm not going to be wearing purple underwear,” Johnson said. “I love East Carolina, but I serve where my feet are.

“We are going to do everything we can to help our team beat East Carolina.”

But how did Johnson transition from a college football player to the third-base coach for a Division I program? 

The change came from a 20-minute session of surfing the internet and making a phone call in January of 2010. At the time, Johnson was a P.E. teacher at Nash Central. But since he graduated from ECU in 2007, he kept thinking about college coaching. And even though he played football at ECU, baseball was his passion.

During a random planning period, he started looking at different colleges’ websites, checking out their baseball coaching staffs. After clicking around, he landed on Lander University. The Greenwood, S.C., school had only two coaches at the time: head coach Kermit Smith and pitching coach Chris Anderson.

Johnson had a connection to the two. Jim Leggett, a former Rocky Mount High pitcher, played for Smith and Anderson at Belmont Abbey before the two left for Lander in 2009. Johnson called Jim’s father, Quentin Leggett, to see if he could set up a phone call with Anderson. Leggett called back in about five minutes, saying Anderson would give Johnson a call in the next couple of weeks.

All Johnson wanted was to have a conversation about breaking into coaching. He was shocked after another five minutes, when Anderson called him. The pitching coach was straightforward: the Bearcats needed a volunteer coach for the next season, and he asked if Johnson wanted to come. Johnson said he was interested, and Anderson said he’d be in touch. 

Johnson hung up the phone, sat back in his desk chair and noticed his sweaty palms. He was feeling the pressure of a life change.

“I told my parents, ‘I don’t know that I didn’t just take a coaching job in five minutes of just scanning the internet,” Johnson laughed.

Johnson committed to Lander after a campus visit. He resigned from Nash Central in July and moved to South Carolina. It seemed so fast to Johnson. Anderson agreed, but he knew what he needed to know about Johnson. 

“It happened quickly, but the thing is, when you know people and trust people, it is kind of easy,” said Anderson, who is now the head coach of Belmont Abbey. “When everyone is kind of saying the same thing about someone, it makes the interview process a lot easier. 

“. . . It is about hiring people. It is not necessarily about hiring the coach. You can train for the coaching part.”

For the three seasons spanning 2011-2013, Johnson worked with the infield and served at third base. Anderson said he and Smith needed help recruiting, and Johnson made an immediate impact. The things people told Anderson about Johnson — that he was hardworking, loyal and attentive — were all true. 

Johnson worked those years for free. He had to think creatively to find money. Smith would pay Johnson for working camps anytime he could. Johnson listened to his father, Don, and earned his bus-driving license. He would drive Lander teams to away games during spare time. He served as a bodyguard in Greenville, S.C. He ushered Lil Wayne, Juicy J and Wiz Khalifa into concerts and walked Randy Orton, Shamus and The Big Show into WWE wrestling events. He repossessed cars around Greenwood, too.

All that brought in between $600 and $1,000 during busy months. During the season, it might drop as low as $200. Johnson thanks his old roommate, former Lander athletics trainer Bryan Wells, for taking on the brunt of their bills. 

“He knew what I was going through to try to do it,” Johnson said. “He was an absolute blessing throughout the entire thing.”

Johnson became recruiting coordinator after the 2013 season. When he and Smith looked for a new graduate assistant, Johnson learned Jim Leggett was looking for work. Leggett later joined the Bearcats before the 2015 season, and he is now the pitching coach at Francis Marion in Florence, S.C.

In Johnson’s three paid seasons, Lander saw two of the better years in school history. The Bearcats went to the Division II College World Series twice, in 2014 and 2016. Lander won a school-record 52 games en route to the 2014 CWS appearance. Last season, Lander claimed the Peach Belt Conference championship and had five players either drafted or signed by MLB teams. 

That success grabbed the attention of Appalachian State, who hired Smith as head coach on July 14. When a spot for an assistant opened, he wanted to bring Johnson. Johnson was hired in early August.

Even during his first Lander season, Johnson had no problem sharing his opinion or disagreeing with Smith. The duo made too many short-budgeted recruiting trips to count. A loyalty and a friendship built up, and it’s because Johnson possesses many traits that Smith admires. One, his energy, was on display during the first meeting Johnson sat in with a potential Lander recruit.

“We’ve got a policy when we bring in a kid, I will sit down with them and their family, one on one, and just lay out the expectations for our program — what we are going to expect from them and what they can expect from us,” Smith said, already starting to chuckle. “We talked about our vision of winning a national championship, and how we are going to do that.

“(Johnson) was sitting over to the side of my desk, and it was a really small office, and the next thing I know, he is fidgeting, his knees are going up and down and he just can’t sit still. It started basically when I said ‘National championship.’”

Smith contests that Johnson’s passion has not changed. And today, it will be displayed on the third-base line of Clark-LeClair Stadium. Johnson has looked at ECU, and its many athletic facilities, as a second home. He never thought about being an opponent of the Pirates. But he is fine to be where he is, and he’s happy with the quick decision he made that changed everything.

“It is crazy to think that this all happened in seven years,” Johnson said. “I’m just blessed.

“There are a lot of people who have probably worked a lot longer than I have to be in the position I have, and I am just blessed.”

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