You don't hold a news conference when you hire an assistant coach, and La Salle certainly did not in May when new head basketball coach Ashley Howard hired Kenny Johnson. The hire did warrant a headline, however, because Johnson's last job, at Louisville, had ended with his dismissal as part of the FBI scandal that also cost Hall of Fame head coach Rick Pitino his job.
At the time, La Salle's hire raised eyebrows. Johnson was not indicted as part of the scandal. However, Louisville became an unnamed part of the FBI investigation when a former runner for an agent was alleged to have arranged payment to a high school player's family on behalf of a shoe company, Adidas. The school that the big-time recruit, Brian Bowen, chose to attend was Louisville.
Pitino, also unnamed in the case brought by the FBI — he was anonymous Coach 2 — has insisted that he had no knowledge of this scheme, although there is evidence alleging calls between Pitino and a now-indicted Adidas employee, Jim Gatto, which still have to be explained.
According to court depositions, Johnson was the assigned primary recruiter of the player. Louisville fired him and another assistant, Jordan Fair, in mid-October at the same time Pitino was let go. The school's athletic director, Tom Jurich, who had turned the university into an athletic and revenue-producing powerhouse, also was fired.
When La Salle hired Johnson in May, a report by CBS Sports stated that Johnson had shared a letter to La Salle and other potential employers from his attorney saying that the U.S. Attorney's Office had called Johnson "a potential witness in its case and nothing more."
If you assume that was true then and still true now, Johnson's name still could be dragged through various mud piles. One of those appeared last week, when depositions in a civil suit — Richard A. Pitino v. University of Louisville Athletic Associates, Inc — were made public.
A May 31 deposition by Pitino's attorney and the university's attorney of David Padgett, another former Pitino assistant, got to the subject of the campus visit of Bowen, the player in question. It zeroed in on a form that needed to be turned in to Louisville's compliance office listing which people were on campus for the visit, and a text before the visit from Johnson to director of basketball operations Michael Bowden, and whether the former agent runner, Christian Dawkins, was listed on the form.
Q: Are you aware that Kenny Johnson sent an email — or excuse me — a text message to Mike Bowden and told him not to list Christian Dawkins on the form?
Padgett: "Am I aware of it now? Yes, I am. At the time? No, I was not."
Later, Padgett was asked if that omission was improper. "Yes."
Q. Do you know of any reason why Kenny Johnson did that?
Under questioning by the university's attorney, Padgett said Dawkins' name was later added to the form at the request of the compliance department, after Pitino, Johnson, and another assistant had been fired. Dawkins was listed as an AAU coach, which he had previously been, although that was not his role at the time of the visit.
In his own deposition, Bowden said he didn't know why Johnson had asked him to leave Dawkins' name off the form.
Headlines in Louisville focused on that form and Johnson's role in leaving the name off. Interestingly, there is no public record that Johnson has been deposed. Maybe that will still happen, or maybe nobody from either side of the lawsuit wanted to find out what Johnson himself knew and whether he had received instructions from any higher-ups.
Former Inquirer and Daily News reporter Michael Sokolove has a new book out, The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino: a Story of Corruption, Scandal, and the Big Business of College Basketball." The Bowen case forms the spine of the book.
Kenny Johnson is mentioned only three times in the book, each time briefly. In a phone interview, Sokolove said the roles of Johnson and the other fired Louisville assistant, Fair, remain mostly a mystery.
"At this point, Kenny Johnson knows what he did and didn't do,'' Sokolove said.
On the advice of his own attorney, Johnson hasn't made any public statements. A request to La Salle didn't change that. But Ashley Howard said Tuesday, "I've known Kenny for a long time. I know he's an individual of high character and integrity and I stand by him through this time."
The time isn't over, with a federal trial still in the future for Dawkins and others. Also, in addition to suing Louisville, Pitino has sued Adidas, the shoe company involved, the same company that had a massive sponsorship deal with Louisville.
Sokolove makes the point that if you look at the basketball recruiting environment, the fact that specific people had a relationship with Dawkins is not in itself noteworthy.
"Everybody has a relationship with Christian Dawkins,'' Sokolove said.
So Johnson, who had worked at Towson and Indiana before Louisville, is an unlikable character in this whole tale?
"Just the opposite,'' Sokolove said. "Everyone likes Kenny Johnson."
It's just that every school couldn't hire Kenny Johnson this year. Most stayed away.
La Salle is trying to move up in the college hoops world after just one NCAA appearance in a quarter-century. Hiring Howard, top assistant on Villanova's 2018 NCAA title team, was a big coup. Howard, who had moved up the assistant ranks as Johnson had, decided that Johnson was worth going to bat for. La Salle decided the hire was worth the risk.
Given Johnson's reputation as a proven recruiter, Sokolove said, "it's a big come-down for Kenny Johnson and it's a big get for La Salle if everything goes OK."
Sokolove added, "La Salle hired him and hoped there wouldn't be any revelations about what he did or didn't do."