After thirty-six years, UIC men’s gymnastics coach Clarence “CJ” Johnson will officially retire as of August 31, 2010. Johnson’s UIC career started when he was a gymnast for the men’s team in 1968. UIC was Johnson’s college choice as his high school coach had also been a UIC gymnast. “He taught me the things I did, taught me what it was like (to be a gymnast) and it just stayed with me” Johnson said.
Over the years the name “CJ” Johnson has been synonymous with the word success. Under Johnson’s coaching, men’s gymnastics became the first Division I program at UIC in 1980. In 2010, UIC men’s gymnastics finished tenth in the country under Johnson’s coaching. Johnson has led the Flames to NCAA postseason competitions on ten occasions since 1980, including back-to-back berths in 2009 and 2010. Johnson has also coached his athletes to an overall of sixty-six All-American honors. Johnson speaks proudly of his athlete’s accomplishments at UIC. “Of the eighteen Division I All-Americans here at UIC, men’s gymnastics has accounted for seven” Johnson said.
To Johnson, gymnastics always has been and always will be a part of his life. “If you don’t understand it (gymnastics), it is because you are not a part of it. It just stays with me. It is in my heart. The chalk is in my heart and blood. I may be retired, but I am not dead, baby!”
Johnson’s coaching experience is not limited to UIC. He has coached the United States team at competitions in Mexico City and Budapest. He was also head coach for the Irish National Team. Johnson has had offers to coach at many different clubs but is hesitant about accepting any offers.
Now that his UIC career is over, Johnson says he is unsure about what to do with his retirement. “I haven’t figured it out,” Johnson says, “I wish I didn’t have to go into retirement. I never thought of it as work because it was always a fun experience. If anything, I am trying to find myself now, but I hate to sound spiritual.”
Johnson said that he will miss the atmosphere of the athletes the most. Helping them with day-to-day problems, troubles and successes was Johnson’s favorite part of coaching. “Every team comes waith baggage, but it was never a chore. I was the coach for thirty-six years to not only coach men’s gymnastics but to teach citizenship and life skills,” Johnson said.
UIC alumni and award-winning veteran assistant coach Charley Nelson will replace Johnson this season to lead the two-time defending Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) champions when he assumes his new title of head coach August 31st. Nelson has been with UIC since he competed for the Flames in 1996. Since graduating, Nelson has served as the assistant coach under Johnson for the last eleven seasons.
Nelson has high hopes for another conference championship this year. “I want to push the single-digits for the NCAA,” Nelson said in an interview. When asked if his coaching of the men’s gymnastics team will change now that he is the head coach, Nelson said: “I learned a lot from ‘CJ’, but because of all the success we have had coaching together, I am not going to fix anything that isn’t broken.” Ultimately, Nelson plans on supporting UIC men’s gymnastics and would like to continue its tradition of bringing in high-level gymnasts and seeing them graduate as proud alumni.
One proud alumni is 2010 former UIC gymnast Nikolai Korepanov, who speaks well of his coaches. “‘CJ’ is one of the most genuine individuals you could meet. During my time on the team, if I ever needed anything at all, he bent over backwards as much as he could. Charley did the same thing, really. He shows a passion for not only the sport, which is important, but also the school itself. He is one of those die-hard alums you find at big schools like Ohio State and Michigan.”
It’s hard to let go of such a devout Flame. However, CJ Johnson deserves nothing but the best in his retirement.
PUBLISHED IN THE CHICAGO FLAME, AUGUST 2010