Lady Bear basketball

Four decades of winning began with Larry Joe, Sheila Jo
Nov 29, 2013
Sheila Johansson stands in front of a poster from her playing days at Mt. Juliet

 

 

When Larry Joe Inman arrived at Mt. Juliet High School to coach girls’ basketball in 1973, he was an eager young coach taking over a program which hadn’t won much in recent seasons.

The Bearettes, as they were called then, went 6-20 the season before he arrived.

“A lot of people thought I was crazy for coming here,” said Inman, who had been coaching junior-high ball in his native Gallatin. “I was looking for opportunities as a young coach and I figured there was only one way we could go.”

“[Principal] Elzie Patton gave him the job because nobody else would take it,” said one of his players, Sheila Johansson. “We were terrible and they said the girls at Mt. Juliet were a bunch of hillbillies who couldn’t play basketball.

“Mt. Juliet girls’ basketball was terrible, hadn’t won, people weren’t dedicated, but they hadn’t had the coaching in the past.”

He had a good young nucleus of players to work with. And work he did and WORK they did. The results were immediate.

“They were great kids and they bought into what we were doing,” said Inman, who would spend most of his career in the college ranks where he is now the Ohio Valley Conference’s winningest coach. “I worked this group of kids harder than any group of kids I’ve ever coached in my life, and they responded.”

Inman said he doesn’t remember the record of the ’73-74 team, but that they won 7-18 games and the district championship.

“I was very proud of that,” he said. “We made a lot of strides.

“They wanted to succeed. They wanted to be winners.”

But all roads to the top are paved with bumps. Inman’s second season was Johansson’s freshman year. The Bearettes reached the region finals where she fouled the player who hit the free throws to end Mt. Juliet’s season, a memory which remains vivid to her nearly 40 years later. They lost to Smyrna in the substate the following year before taking the championship in their first trip to the state tournament in 1977.

Among the Bearettes of that era were Diane Cummings, who would become his longtime assistant at Middle Tennessee State, where she is now an athletic administrator. Cummings graduated before the championship season, but Carole Garton, one of the early signees at South Alabama, and Cathy Bender were on the team.

But the centerpiece turned out to be Johansson, who played for Tennessee coach Pat Head [before she married into the Summitt family] on the 1977 Pan American Games gold-medal team in Mexico when she was between her junior and senior seasons in high school. She was the first female to sign an athletic scholarship with Vanderbilt. Her 2,391 points remained the Mt. Juliet girls’ record until Caya Williams broke it two seasons ago.

“Sheila Johansson meant everything to this community,” said Inman, now in his second season coaching Tennessee State University following a two-year stint at Lebanon High. “This community meant everything to her. That’s one reason she played so hard is because we had such great support.

“She just put us on the map. She had great players with her and it was just destiny to win and be successful.”

Johansson, married to Andy Cohen for 28 years, is a mother of two who has taught and coached in Michigan for most of her adult life. She said Inman was the catalyst for the team.

“Larry Joe Inman inspired me, he lit a fire in my belly,” Johansson said. “And then he followed through and worked with me and every step of the way made me the player I am and the person I am today through the type of lessons he taught me about life and basketball.

“I never thought about where that was going to take me. All I did was want to work hard and win for the town and the school of Mt. Juliet.”

Though women’s college basketball was in its toddler stage, Title IX was opening scholarship opportunities for girls, and Johansson knew it. It was the carrot at the end of the stick.

“I knew if I was going to go to college, I had to get a scholarship,” she said. “That was my only opportunity because we were a small town, my parents were working parents and it was going to be hard for me to go to school.

“Larry Joe, everybody prior to me my sophomore and junior years got scholarships somewhere, to junior colleges, he found places for them to go because he was so strong in fundamentals.”

Playing on the offensive end in the six-on-six halfcourt game, she was unstoppable.

“She averaged 27.9 and played inside,” Inman said of the 5-10 Johansson. “She had the whole package. She could fall away, she could power up, she could shoot away from the basket, she could take you off the bounce. She could almost make a basketball talk to her. She had great ballhandling skills for a post player. A 6-3 kid couldn’t guard her, she was so quick off her first step. She’d face off, she’d power you in, she’d jump-hook over you. She just had the whole arsenal going. And that’s why she was selected to represent the United States in the Pan American Games.”

Unlike Tennessee high school basketball at the time, the Pan Am Games were five-on-five fullcourt, as was the college game in the U.S.

“Pat Summitt wanted her,” Inman said. “They contacted us about her coming. I was a little bit worried about it. I was worried about her getting hurt, of all things. She went down there and really represented well.

“Here she was, a young lady from Mt. Juliet, Tenn., down there with Nancy Lieberman and all those people playing on the team with her. What an opportunity it was for her and the community at the time.”

If she didn’t have a key to the gym, she needed one.

“She would come in early in the morning and work,” Inman said. “And then at night, she’d be back here sometimes until 10 o’clock at night, the last one in the gym, she’d be working out, playing and just shoot and play.”

Inman came to Mt. Juliet at a time when the community was beginning to deal with growing pains of suburban explosion. The opening of I-40 opened West Wilson to become a Nashville bedroom community. Before the highway, MJ was a community which some say was smaller than Watertown on the east end of Wilson County.

A new high school opened on Mt. Juliet Road in 1968 and a middle school in ’76 to help deal with the growth.

As a small country school, Mt. Juliet fielded girls’ basketball teams which were successful on the district level, but not the state level, in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Of course, there wasn’t much of a state level for girls’ hoops as the TSSAA didn’t conduct a state tournament until 1958. Classification didn’t come into play until the early ‘70s, by which time MJHS was no longer a small school. And those successes of years earlier were a thing of the past by the time Inman arrived.

But it didn’t take him long to make Bearette basketball not just a local phenomenon, or even a state story, as Johansson became a three-time All-American.

“Before she left, I think we were No. 9 in the country,” said Inman, who left Mt. Juliet in 1978 to break into the college game at MTSU.

But before Inman left to work in Murfreesboro, he took the Bearettes to Murfreesboro where they won the ‘77 championship with a 33-1 record.

Championships are awarded every year. Few of those teams go through the adversity the ’77 Bearettes went through. While they were playing a road game, a fire started somewhere in their gym. It was smoldering even as the team returned to retrieve their cars before it became fully engulfed overnight.

“There was a haze,” Johansson recalled. “It was smoke, but nobody knew it because it was a light haze.

“We all got calls in the middle of the night and we drove to the top of Lebanon Road where Mt. Juliet Road intersects it and we watched our gym burn down. It was very emotional for us. We went and played Lebanon on Friday night and it was the only game we lost that year. We were very emotional and it was a physical game.”

The girls’ and boys’ teams had to scramble to find a gym to play and practice in. They found a temporary home at the brand-new Mt. Juliet Junior High [now West Wilson Middle School] and worked around that school’s schedule.

“We had to have our prom there that summer because our prom was always in the gym,” Johansson said. “They were very good to us. Everybody took care of the girls’ basketball team because we were projected to win the state and the community supported us.”

“I don’t know if that didn’t bring us together,” Inman said. “Sometimes good teams have things happen to them and it pulls them together. I think that pulled us together and helped mold us into the strength and stamina they needed to overcome.”

While Johansson was the star of the team who earned state tournament Most Valuable Player honors, she was surrounded by good players.

“Her senior year, we had six kids who signed some type of scholarship,” Inman said. “We had kids who would guard you and put you on lockdown and we had other kids who would light you up on offense. We had a great combination.

“Very sound fundamentally and had good outside shooters, good post-up players. We just weren’t huge. A lot of the teams we played against were bigger than us. Jackson Central-Merry, when we won the state we played them in the playoffs, they were much bigger than us. But we didn’t miss a beat. Our kids were relentless. They just stayed after it on both ends of the floor. Jo [Johansson] anchored our inside, Carole Garton our outside. Then our defense, Cathy Bender and our kids were just great.”

With the nucleus of the team returning, Mt. Juliet was a favorite to repeat in ’78. But Johansson tore up her knee in the region final against Maplewood and lost in the substate [now called the sectional] by one point.

That knee would prove to be the Achilles’ heel to her playing career as she injured it again eight months later as a Vanderbilt freshman, forcing her to undergo major reconstruction surgery. She was redshirted that year and, though she returned to the court, was never the same player again.

“I lost that quick first step so I had become a different type of player,” she said. “I had to move from the post to the outside, to the wing. It was never the same. I played hard and was okay, but once you have two major knee surgeries, you can’t recover.”

The injuries cost her a spot on the 1978 World Games, coached by Summitt, and a shot at the 1980 U.S. Olympic team.

“She called me in the hospital and said you can’t go because they don’t take injuries anymore,” Johansson said. “And they had so much talent.”

While Inman was building college programs at MTSU and Eastern Kentucky and Mt. Juliet was building its girls’ basketball brand under coaches Tommy Martin and Chris Fryer, Johansson was working in Michigan, where she now teaches sixth-grade boys’ math and coaches sixth-grade boys’ basketball.

“Larry Joe Inman did girls, I do boys,” she quipped before breaking off the interview to take her teammates to the locker room for a pregame talk with the 2013-14 Lady Bears.

Though the reception was in her honor, she took charge at that moment.

“That was so different from the way I was in high school,” she said after the interview resumed. “I was quiet in high school and led by example more than speaking.

“Over the years, I have become confident. I can’t show them on the court anymore so I have to speak and take charge.”

Martin, an assistant on the ’77 team, took over the Bearettes in the fall of ’78 and, with basically the championship team gone, coached them to a .500 record in the final season of six-on-six.

But with the conversion to five-on-five in ’79, Martin took another group of young players, led by Susie Gardner, and led them to the state runner-up in 1981 and, with Gardner now playing collegiately at Georgia, to the ’83 championship.

Martin had just one losing season, a 15-16 campaign in 1986-87, while winning 430 games before stepping down in 1998. Fryer took the reigns and led the Lady Bears, as they started being known as in the mid-‘80s, to the championship in 2005. Between those two, Mt. Juliet has been to 12 state tournaments in addition to Inman’s one.

Johansson said she’s able to follow the Lady Bears online in Michigan. She is proud of what she and her teammates started, but credited those who came after her contemporaries for building on it.

“These girls have bought into that winning tradition and followed in our footsteps,” she said. “But to follow in our footsteps, they had to take on the same work ethic we did. I really give them credit and thank all the girls who followed me in our footsteps to keep that tradition going. One team doesn’t make a tradition, it’s the people who follow who make that tradition.”

Johansson played before Fryer became a student at Mt. Juliet. His first exposure to Bearette basketball came with the ’83 champs. But it made an impression on the Golden Bear football player.

“I saw the commitment and how hard the girls worked, even as a male going to this school,” said Fryer, who graduated in ’86. “It’s been a blessing since I took the job.”

In addition to Gardner, who coached in the Southeastern Conference at Arkansas, Amanda Butler [Class of ‘90], played, and now coaches, at Florida. Alysha Clark [2005 Miss Basketball] has played professionally in the WNBA and overseas in Israel.

“A lot of the powerhouses in this state like Shelbyville and Oak Ridge, Lebanon, you had a lot of powerhouses where it’s been hard to maintain that level of success,” Fryer said. “It does put a lot of pressure on you, but I don’t want to say too much because you never know when you’re going to start going in the other direction because you got to have players, and we’ve been fortunate to have outstanding players

“Ever since I’ve coached, our talent level has really been pretty good.”

But Fryer, who organized last Friday’s ceremony in which an action poster of Johansson has joined Clark, Jennifer Johnson and Courtney McFarlin high on the wall of the gym, said the current 40-year run traces back to the Sheila Jo era.

“It started with the commitment of the families and the community accepting that their kids are going to be coached and the coaches are going to play the best players,” Fryer said. “A lot of communities don’t do that. They get upset with coaches because certain people are sitting the bench or this girl has been playing. I’ve been lucky, I’ve been able to play the best players.”

 

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