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Lynnette Johnson, the first female head athletic trainer in SEC history, is in her 23rd year at Ole Miss and has spent the last 14 years as a Sport Administrator and SWA. In conversation with College AD, Johnson stressed the willingness to be bold in decision making, something that is not always easy.
On Her Journey
“I think what you’ll find as you talk to a lot of executive women leaders, a lot of us started in other areas of athletics. I started in athletic training and sports medicine. I came to the University in 1989 as part of our sports medicine program. I spent my first nine years at Ole Miss in the sports medicine department as an Assistant Athletic Trainer then I was promoted to be the Head Athletic Trainer. At that time, I was the first women in the SEC to oversee football and everybody. I did not know it until they called me and let me know that I was the first one. Back in that time, you didn’t have many women that worked with men’s sports. After that, I did not spend much time in the training room because I had the opportunity to move into Administration in 1998 because our Executive SWA assistant AD at the time, retired.
“One of the pieces of advice I would give to anyone across the country is if you don’t ask, you’ll never get a yes or a no. I went in and asked for the opportunity to look into that position with our Athletic Director at the time, Pete Boone. He kind of looked at me and didn’t really say a lot. That was in November of 1997, and in December of 1997 was at the bowl game. I was in my role as the head athletic trainer at the Ford Motor City Bowl, and our Chancellor walked up and said, ‘You are going to be the next Senior Women’s Administrator,’ so that is how I found out.
“I didn’t really know anything about the NCAA side because there’s a sports medicine world where you’re focused on the injuries and the illnesses, the rules and regulations that are in the medical field at that time, but not necessarily managing teams and their budgets and overseeing that.
On Career Challenges
“Time helps you learn a lot of things. I think that the communication was challenging. I don’t think that I have ever been enormously frustrated, but I think that when you change roles, you know, one day I was the head coaches colleague in the training room, and the next day, they reported to me. That is an inherent challenge on setting expectations; you have to figure out what your Athletic Director wants, what your institution wants, and be able to work with those programs and provide them with the support that they need.
“Ultimately, we all want to be successful in graduating our student-athletes, providing them with a great experience on the playing field, or on the court. All of the layers start to come on, so making sure that you’re communicating all of that, is a bigger piece because every sport is unique. They all have student-athletes that are working towards their college degrees, that’s the same. But for softball, then the sport of soccer, then compared to the sport of track and field when you’re dealing with co-ed teams. Each sport nationally is different. You know, the sport of softball, 20 year ago, wasn’t near as on the radar as it is now. I mean, people love to watch softball, and love to attend softball.”
On The Mentors Who’ve Guided Her
“Pete [Boone] left then I had a different Athletic Director that came in. Even before I got my first paycheck as the SWA, I didn’t even have a boss. Sometimes that is nerve-racking. Ole Miss brought in John Shafer, he was fantastic. He didn’t come in and say, ‘you haven’t even done anything, I don’t know you, or you could go back to the training room.’ None of that; we just hit it off and I just moved forward from there learning the role on the job to be quite honest. I was really figuring out how to communicate with coaches and evaluate programs, manage budgets, and help them make those decisions. Probably one of the most nervous things at the time is having to make that decision. At Ole Miss, there is a need to have the autonomy to make a budgetary decision, and to work with the coaches on setting up the schedules. I’ve been fortunate to be allowed to have that level of autonomy. ”
On Advice For Aspiring Professionals
“I did a lot of things wrong in those first couple of years. One bit of advice to young executive women coming up and men for that matter, is you have to be willing to understand that you are going to make a mistake, and you learn from it.
“Don’t be afraid to not make a mistake. I had great athletic directors that would support me. They pull me in, maybe it was for something that they would say, ‘hey, I wouldn’t have made that decision.’ They gave me the ability to make it. But they would call me in and say, ‘Here’s why I would’ve liked you to think of it differently.’ They never went out and said I was wrong publicly. I learned that as a leader that people are going to make mistakes.”
“Full transparency with your staff and coaches, thinking through things, and not immediately saying no, even though that may be the answer. Everyone jokes that I have a ‘No’ button on my desk. You have to be able to say no. You have to be able to explain to the student-athlete, or the coach, or the staff member what your thought process is and were and how you got to that.”
“Some of the most rewarding things about being at Ole Miss for 27 years, we have averaged around 300-400 student-athletes a year, multiply that by 25, and that’s pretty cool to have experienced that many student-athletes in those years. I’m still connected to people from when I was the athletic trainer for women’s basketball. We text each other, watch our kids grow up together. I haven’t practiced athletic training in a long time, but I’ll still have people call and say, ‘I think my kid hurt his knee, and I’m not doing anything without you telling me.’
“That is what keeps everyone in collegiate athletics; the relationships that you build with your coworkers and the student-athletes over the years. Now I’m seeing kids of the players that I took care of 25 years ago. And boy, does that make you feel old.”