New LSU volleyball coach promises herself some grace

Courtesy of LSU Tonya Johnson

Tonya Johnson is one of 19 women and men—current head coaches, assistants, and former head coaches—on the Advancement of Blacks in Sports (ABIS) Black volleyball coaches watch list.

Johnson, the former Texas associate HC who was hired to lead LSU, and former Illinois assistant Rashanda Reed, now Alabama head coach, were named to their new positions within a couple of days of each other last month. They are the SEC’s only Black volleyball coaches.

“The [interview] process went really, really fast once it got going,” said Johnson in an MSR phone interview shortly after her hiring on Dec. 22. “I was offered the job before I left campus.”

Johnson (1987-90) attended and played at LSU, a member of two Southeastern Conference title-winning clubs, and a 1990 Final Four participant.  She later was an assistant at her alma mater (1998-2002).  

“To come back and coach at LSU,” explained Johnson, “especially 15 miles north of Baton Rouge, going to school there and playing in front of my family, getting the opportunity to be the head coach. I’m just super appreciative to LSU for entrusting the program to me. I just know that these next several years are going to be exciting and fun, and great energy.”

The Zachary, La. native, between her two stints at Texas (2003-08, 2014-21), was Georgia Tech HC (2009-13) and guided the Yellow Jackets to the 2009 NCAA tournament. She was also the 2012 US Volleyball National A2 team co-head coach.

According to recent NCAA data, there were 74 total Black volleyball head coaches across all three divisions in 2021. This total was 81 twice in the previous decade (2012, 2013).  

Asked how she sees herself in her second chance as HC, the LSU coach responded, “I don’t mind sharing. I made a shortlist of the things that I would do differently the next time I become a head coach. One, I will be myself. We become head coaches and believe we have to choose between what we are and change our personality and I don’t think that’s true. I think you just have to be true to yourself. 

    “The second thing that I said was that I would give myself more grace. I think I am harder on myself than anyone else. No one puts more pressure on me than I do. I think showing myself a little bit more understanding, I think that’s part of learning as long as you learn from your mistakes. Then everyone involved in the program will be better off.

 “The third thing is just to be a better communicator and listener,” added Johnson. “In today’s day and age” the players are different than five years ago, she stressed. “So having open lines of communication, and having good, wide-open ears to listen, I think is going to be important going forward,”

The NCAA demographics data also show that there were 1,894 Black volleyball players across all three divisions in 2021. The all-time high in a 10-year span was 1,921 (2019).

“I remember getting into [volleyball coaching] in the late ‘90s and not seeing a lot of young girls that look like me playing volleyball,” recalled Johnson. The numbers are increasing, she pointed out: “That part has been really, really fun to see and really special when I get to see those moments when I’m out recruiting.”

She is proud that the SEC has both herself and Reed as head coaches. “She was a great assistant and I have known her for quite a long time and it’s definitely an opportunity that she’s earned. I’m sure she will be successful. I would love to see more [Black] female head coaches across the board in our sport. I think that would be great for our sport.”