New Portland State AD talks opportunities, challenges
John Johnson is the newest person to tackle the challenge of making Portland State athletics relevant in the Portland market. The challenges go beyond managing a department with an annual budget of less than $16 million (smaller than that of most Big Sky Conference schools) for 13 sports.
Johnson, 62, was hired in March and has been on the job since May 1. He replaced Valerie Cleary, who left Portland State in July of 2021 for a similar position at Multnomah Athletic Club.
His top task is to make the Portland State Athletics more fiscally viable. An annual report to the PSU Faculty Senate in May projected a $3 million deficit for athletics in 2022-23. According to the same report, PSU Athletics was about $2.7 million in the red in 2021-22.
Working in college athletics for four decades, Johnson has achieved success raising funds for significant facility improvements, most notably during his time as Associate AD at Washington State, where he spearheaded badly-needed facility upgrades, including a $120 million renovation of Martin Stadium.
Johnson grew up in Spokane Valley, Washington, with five sisters. His father was an auto mechanic. His mother drove a school bus. He jokes that, with five sisters, he had to get out of the house, and sports provided an outlet.
"Mom would say, 'I want him in sports to keep him tired,'" a smiling Johnson said.
He played football at Montana State (cornerback) and at Eastern Washington (wide receiver, coached by Pokey Allen who later led Portland State's successful Division II era). It was at EWU where his career in the administrative side of college athletics began, eventually as athletic director in Cheney from 1993-97 before moving to Weber State as AD from 1997 to 2004. He was Senior Associate Athletics Director at Washington State from 2004-2019 and most recently Senior Deputy Athletics Director at Nebraska (2019-21).
His wife, Lisa, is a golf coach, most recently at Nebraska. They have 11-year-old twins, daughter Ellie and son Cooper.
In his first two months on the job, Johnson has been meeting with stakeholders and athletics department staff. The Tribune had a recent conversation with Johnson, which is slightly edited below for length and clarity.
Why was the Portland State opening right for you?
"It was a chance to come home. I always hoped that I would end my career in the Northwest, in the Big Sky. I don't know if this will be the last stop, but most likely it will.
"You've got a chance to make a difference at this level. And Portland State has tremendous, tremendous — and I always thought this when I was at other schools — opportunity for great success. It's unique. It's a beautiful part of the country. "
What does a successful Portland State Athletics Department look like?
"It's more than just dollars. It's about culture, and it's about heart. It's about grit. It's about positioning yourself to be successful in the intangible, so to speak.
"We want to give our coaches the resources to be successful and to compete at a high level. I believe in a good student-athlete experience, and you'll hear that, but I truly do. They need to grow academically, and we do a great job there. Our graduation rates are terrific and our GPA is very high. Socially, teach them skills for life after sports. And the other thing is, make sure we have the facilities we need to be successful."
On that subject, does your vision for football include continuing at Hillsboro Stadium (where the Vikings have played since 2019, a move prompted by scheduling conflicts with the Timbers and Thorns at Providence Park)?
"I haven't been to a game at Hillsboro. When I was a student athlete, and when I was (athletic director) at Eastern and Weber State, they played at Civic Stadium. I hear the pros and cons of the locations. I understand what went on relative to Civic Stadium and that change.
"The first thing is, you've got to have a good product. And then we'll figure out what's the best situation for Portland State, for the city of Portland and for greater Portland. I've driven by (Hillsboro Stadium). I'm going to spend more time there. Facilities are going to be something that we need to deal with."
On the subject of facilities, what's your impression of the Peter W. Stott Center/Viking Pavilion? How does it stack up to facilities in the Big Sky?
"A great advantage is our building, having a great intimate arena for basketball and volleyball. A very nice weight room for our student athletes. We have some space. In some respects, it's a much better work environment than many schools in the league. We're all in the same building. And that creates a great team atmosphere that many programs at all levels don't have. The football coach is walking down the hall saying congrats to the volleyball coach, and the two basketball coaches are right next to each other. You just have that sense of family."
Talk about the facility improvements that you spearheaded at Washington State, which included football, baseball, tennis, track and others.
"We came up with a vision collectively. And we knew we had to fix facilities for football. All our facilities were due for a facelift, and a very expensive one. We started during the Great Recession. One advantage was low interest rates. We found a way to get it done, piece by piece by piece. In development, when you have success and you build facilities, that generates more interest in what you're doing as a program.
"We had challenges at Washington State, not only financially. We built the first building since the 70s in athletics in the 2000s. You didn't have a lot of real estate, not unlike here. So we had to be creative and we found ways to partner both with the private sector and partner with campus in our facilities to create a better experience for not only the student athletes, but the students. We did things that would benefit more than just athletics."
You mentioned that Eastern Washington and Weber State, while in smaller cities than Portland, are commuter schools like PSU. With few full-time students living on campus, how do you make students fans of your sports?
"Are we communicating to our alums who are traditional students? Who are those people, and are we telling the Portland State story? But it also starts on campus, because current students will be our alumni of the future. It's a long-term investment, plus students create a great environment. So we specifically are working on how we market to our students for both volleyball and basketball, and then our other sports. Number one is, we're going to make our games fun. It's going to take some time, but it's going to be where the game is almost secondary. Where it's like, 'Geez, dad, I know the Vikings didn't win, but I had so much fun. Can we come back to the next game?'
"I go back to Washington State, where the challenge wasn't the price of our tickets. The challenge was 40% of our season-ticket holders lived in between Seattle and Portland. And there's 800 hotel rooms in Pullman and Moscow (Idaho). (At Portland State) we have a captive audience. So make it affordable, family oriented, a great experience. We're a different price point. Take advantage of it. But I'm going to spend time, and so are our student athletes, engaged in campus, with groups, with the student body."
PSU coaches have touted the downtown campus and being in a major city as advantages for recruiting and development, but teams have struggled to find consistent success, or traction in the market. What's the plan for making PSU sports more relevant to Portland sports fans and businesses?
"We can be part of the solution for getting more people downtown. Because we have events and we make it fun, they'll come downtown, they'll stay after work down here and maybe we play our games little earlier. We've got to give them a good product. The product is wins and losses, but it's also the environment we create.
"We need to be part of the solution to bring Portland back from what many cities across the country experienced during COVID. We need to make that commitment and we will. We're going to be part of the solution, whatever that might be."
Johnson noted that partnerships with TicketSmarter.com for ticketing and with Peak Sports MGMT to oversee multimedia rights and sell PSU sponsorships are relatively new and haven't yet had a COVID-free cycle.
"We have to sell more tickets. But, let's be honest, we haven't done that for about two years, or three. So, we kind of have to restart it and get people used to going out again and coming to games.
"How do we look at ways to make an exciting event, generate money, generate revenue, ticket sales and also donations? And for those big ideas, not unlike we did at Washington State, whether it's a stadium, whether it's a center, whether it's an initiative, that we do a good job of marketing those big ideas for those one-time gifts that really make a difference. We need to get better in that regard. Enrollments are dropping around the country as we get out of COVID. There's going to be some lean years and most of us at the FCS level do rely on student fees as well as university funds."
What's your view on the impact on college sports, and Portland State, on the ability of athletes to earn money from their name, image or likeness (NIL)?
"I think at all levels, it's a challenge. It's only a year old. It's been well chronicled that the collectives are being used as a recruiting inducement. Even athletic directors and commissioners at the highest levels were afraid it would turn into something like this — not for everyone in every program, but for certain individuals. But we have it and we need to embrace it. But that's a very small percentage.
"The NIL on its face was for Jimmy, who's a track athlete and mows lawns in the summer to make money, and I could use my uniform and let (customers) know I'm an athlete. That was the impetus. That's how it's used for 90% and I believe there's an opportunity. (The athletics department) just monitors (NIL), but can help prepare our student athletes so they take advantage of it. I think there's an opportunity there."
"A student-athlete can blog and start promoting X product and get paid for it, 10 cents a hit, or whatever. I think we have great advantage here because we're in a big city compared to some others in our league, for that athlete to be able to make a few dollars based on who they are.
"I also believe there's an educational component that we can use as part of our student-athlete development. That is, we have our entrepreneur program in the business school or leadership (teach them) this is how you start a business. This is how you calculate taxes, because it'll be taxable income. This is how you market.
"If other programs want to throw a lot of money from a collective to sign athletes, so be it. We're probably not going to get that student athlete. But, there are more like us. There's 300 or so Division I schools more like us in NIL then like what you hear on TV where collectives are developed."
How does this job at a Big Sky Conference university compare with a Washington State or a Nebraska?
"You have the Power Five, and they do what they do, but we're the true collegiate model. (Athletes) are here because they want to be, and it's not because they get training table or to get NIL. It's because they want to compete, and I love that. Because I believe sports teaches life, and I would never trade my college experience. I wasn't that good, and I would never trade it."
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