Stipulated: Father-son combinations are scarcely so rare as to be particularly newsworthy in and of themselves. We’ve had father-son presidents of the United States, twice, and fathers have been handing off everything from international corporations to small family businesses almost since the idea of commerce emerged.
How ancient? The Abraham of Genesis begat the business of building great nations to Isaac and, if unwittingly, Ishmael.
All of that is prelude to establish this: My deep roots in the University of Florida’s Gator Nation notwithstanding, I wouldn’t argue the newsworthiness of the following extension of the father-son tradition unless it were genuinely unique.
And, it is.
A couple of months ago, Len Johnson, 59, the Dade City-reared lawyer, became the 35th president of Gator Boosters Inc., the 14,000-member fundraising arm of The University Athletic Association Inc.
Len’s dad, the peripatetic Hjalma (pronounced “yomma,” rhymes with “comma”), whose reputation for joyful tears has made him the Fountain of Triple J. Ranch, was the group’s president during 2006-07 — undeniably the best year in University of Florida athletic history, if not the best year in the history of any big-college athletic program. And at a buoyant 81, Hjalma has a diamond-encrusted championship ring sandwich— a national football title between back-to-back basketball crowns — to show for it.
Still, we promised uniqueness, and we shall not disappoint: For all the legacy families tied to UF that have been prominent in Florida’s economy, politics and history, the Johnsons of Dade City are the first father-son presidents of Gator Boosters Inc. The absolute first.
And, to think Len’s old man once tried to scuttle this first-of-its-kind legacy. (OK, not really, but it makes an inviting tale.)
When the moment arrived a couple of years back to line up the president for 2016-17, executives and officers polled a key sample of the membership for a slate of candidates. On the appointed day for assembling the electors — most at UF’s athletic offices in Gainesville, some, like Hjalma, joining by speaker phone — then-President Rex Farrior III, the Tampa attorney/investor. Farrior, a one-time New York Yankees minor leaguer and former area youth sports star, declared only one name had been placed in nomination: Double-Gator Leonard H. Johnson, who earned UF degrees in business administration (1978) and law (1980).
At his office-shrine off the U.S. 98 Bypass in Dade City, Hjalma could hear murmurings of cheer accompanied by the approving rapping of knuckles on the boardroom table. Even as his heart swelled and his eyes puddled, Hjalma couldn’t resist playing the imp.
“Before you make a hasty decision,” the old Gator (industrial engineering degree, 1958) interjected with a teasing wink that was almost audible, “I want the board to know I have a lengthy c.v. (curriculum vitae, or life resume) on this Johnson fellow, and I’d like all the members to review it before they take a vote they might come to regret.”
“Hold it right there,” Farrior, 30 years Johnson’s junior, said from Gainesville, his voice crackling over the speaker phone in Dade City. “I’m going to say something to you I’ve been waiting nearly 10 years to say. Hjalma … you’re overruled.”
With that, the deed was done. Len Johnson, son of the weeping orator, became by acclamation president-elect.
Days later, Hjalma rang up Executive Assistant Rebecca Mahony, the group’s unofficial historian, wondering how long it would take to compile a list of all previous father-son Gator Boosters presidents.
“Not long,” Mahony replied. “In fact, I can give it to you right now. You and Len are it. It’s never happened before.”
The president’s duties are substantially, but not entirely, ceremonial. As president of “The Team Behind the Teams,” Johnson is, in many ways, the head of the UF athletic program’ chamber of commerce. He’ll be part of on-field and on-court ceremonies, such as the one when Florida Field is officially renamed for Len’s first Gator hero, Steve Spurrier, the Heisman Trophy winner and legendary football coach.
Len also will be among the ribbon-cutters when the Stephen C. O’ Connell Center — home to the Gators’ indoor sports — reopens in December after a $64.5 million renovation, two-thirds of it financed by Gator Boosters efforts.
But, his prime directive is spearheading the group’s expansionist ambitions. Not that 14,000 reliable contributors — about 750 of them annual $15,000 “Bull Gators” — is small swamp cabbage. However, says Len, “We need to have 50,000. We need to increase the number who identify with the university at whatever level” they can muster, who will say, with their checkbooks, “Yeah, I’m a Gator.”
It’s an uphill climb, Len concedes, in an era when network contracts broadcast almost every game into the homes of fans where, “they have 70-inch high-def TVs, comfortable couches and the beer’s cheap.
“Support slips, when attendance falls, and that’s across the [Southeastern Conference],” he adds, increasing the challenge for a group that raises about $60 million a year.
While noting the clear differences between the son, known for stoicism and a dry wit, and his ebullient dad, Rex Farrior III is confident about the group’s leader, calling him “solid and methodical.” Len Johnson, Farrior says, sticks to his task even in the midst of upheaval.
Farrior’s confidence is sure to be tested, with two second-year coaches overseeing the university’s highest-profile sports and the pending retirement of long-serving Athletic Director Jeremy Foley.
On the other paw, all that change might herald the approach of opportunity. If it comes, new Gator Boosters President Len Johnson, the arid-cheeked first of his kind, should be uniquely qualified to tackle it.
Published July 27, 2016