Former Maryville athletics director James Campbell was the last to try.
Twenty years ago, Campbell approached Friendsville native and McMinn Central girls’ basketball coach Johnny Morgan about coming home to Blount County.
“I said, ‘I just think I’ve found a home,’” Morgan said.
Twenty years later, one of the most successful coaching careers in Tennessee high school sports has a fitting exclamation point.
McMinn Central beat back Macon County, 48-37, in the Class AA championship game last Saturday night at Middle Tennessee State University. The title was the first for Morgan in 33 seasons with the Chargerettes, but it in no way defines a career that will see the 1972 Friendsville graduate inducted into the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association Hall of Fame during ceremonies in Murfreesboro next month.
Morgan took the McMinn Central helm with the 1978 season, the last before girls high school basketball in Tennessee went to the full-court game. When the halfcourt, six-on-six game was abandoned, Morgan was ready with a coaching philosophy he’d honed as a player with stops at Friendsville, Hiwassee College and Tennessee Wesleyan.
“We’re going to play hard and we’re going to play man-to-man defense,” he said.
Where other coaches will deploy the occasional zone, Morgan said he’s always taken the approach: “What if you play one defense great?”
“It leaves more practice time to work on offense,” he said.
The wins came with stunning frequency for Morgan through the years. He’ll enter the Hall next month with better than 700 career wins, his teams winning 71 percent of their games. Over the last 10 years, Morgan and assistant coach Joe Young have averaged 30 wins per season.
“I thought we would have a good team this year,” Morgan said, “but I never dreamed we’d end up 35-1.”
His teams have had countless great players through the years, Morgan said, former Miss Basketball Julie Aderhold and current finalist Jenna Adams just to name a couple. Players like undersized post player Tonya Gay, currently girls coach at Alcoa, helped put McMinn Central on the map, Morgan said.
“She wasn’t a post player,” he said, “but boy! You couldn’t stop her from scoring down there.”
Morgan taught a work ethic as much as he did basketball, Gay said. That’s what she remembers most about her former coach, she said, not all the games he’s won. The long-awaited championship couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
“I don’t think anyone has ever deserved it more,” Gay said.
To many in the profession, Morgan is the coach’s coach, none more so than Maryville girls coach Kim Bledsoe. The pair grew up together in Friendsville. Bledsoe’s older brother was a Falcon teammate of Morgan’s. Bledsoe was inducted into the Blount County Sports Hall of Fame in 2008, Morgan a year later.
“He’s a great guy,” Bledsoe said, “a class act. He does everything the way it should be done. I just have so much respect for him as a coach.”
Morgan took a surprising approach to last week’s landmark championship game win. Three runner-up finishes, including last season, and 11 trips to the state tournament didn’t make the moment any more special.
“Believe it or not, it didn’t feel any better than the win over Cannon County the night before,” he said. “It didn’t feel any better than defeating Livingston Academy at substate. If you coach to win the state, you’re always going to be disappointed because how many people are going to win it? How many teams would kill to have that opportunity? So you can’t dwell on the negative.”
Deciding not to pursue the Maryville job all those years ago followed much the same matter-of-fact thinking.
“If you’re happy,” Morgan said, “you don’t go somewhere else to see if you like it better.”