The late Ellis Johnson, a former Ashland High School four-sport great and a member of the fabulous 1928 national champion basketball team, will be inducted into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday.
He will be getting an assist from a couple of other former Tomcats in Ed and John Radjunas. They are longtime family friends, both when he was a coach at Morehead State and as a businessman in Ashland.
Johnson’s son, Kenn, lives in Mount Sterling but is in poor health and is unable to attend the ceremony. He called Ed to ask if he would represent the Johnson family.
“I told him that of course I’d do that, I wouldn’t even hesitate,” Ed said. “Ellis was like a second father to me.”
Ed was given the details of the ceremony from organizer Ken Trivette, who said they would pay for his hotel expenses. Ed asked him instead for a favor. He wanted to have his brother, John, who lives in Lexington, come with him for the ceremony. “He said, ‘I know John and would be glad to have you both come and do that.’ So that’s what we’re doing,” Ed said.
The Radjunas-Johnson family connection began in the 1930s when Johnson recruited Stan Radjunas – Ed and John’s father – out of Connecticut to play football at Morehead State. However, Stan had already been in contact with Kentucky’s coach about coming to Lexington. Stan told Johnson he was going to try UK. “Ellis told him, ‘If you ever need something, call me.’ Dad enrolled in classes and didn’t like it, so he called Ellis. He said, ‘I made a mistake, I want to come to Morehead,’’’ Ed Radjunas said. “He told him not to play, fake an injury if he had to, to keep his eligibility. He stayed the fall semester, but never played, and transferred to Morehead.”
Stan Radjunas played for Morehead and later coached eight seasons on Johnson’s staff there. The two men had families with similar aged children, so they became close.
When Stan Radjunas decided to leave coaching and move the family to Ashland, it wasn’t long until Johnson came to Ashland in 1953 to get into the insurance business before taking another coaching job at Marshall in 1963. The families lived near each other in Ashland on Elliott and Lawrence Avenues, which are about a block away. During that decade before taking the Marshall job he was one of several men who were instrumental in starting Little League baseball in Ashland in 1955.
Johnson retired from coaching for good in 1969 and was involved in cable television promotion in Huntington where he was a bowtie-wearing analyst for Herd games. He died in 1990 at age 79 in Huntington. He was posthumously put into the UK Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006. He was an inaugural member of the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and is also in the Ashland Daily Independent Sports Hall of Fame and the Ohio Valley Conference Hall of Fame. He was also an early Ashland Elks Sports Day honoree.
Kenn Johnson reminded Ed that he and John were with the Johnson family at the state basketball tournament when it was announced that Ellis would be a member of the first class of the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame. He said they even had their photograph taken with Johnson and put in the Courier Journal.
In 1933, Johnson became Adolph Rupp’s first All-American at Kentucky. He was the first athlete at UK to letter in four sports — basketball, football, baseball and track — in the same season.
Before his career at Kentucky, Johnson led Ashland High School to the 1928 state basketball championship and then the 1928 national championship. He also quarterbacked three undefeated Ashland teams that won or shared state championships. Johnson was a two-time All-American and an All-State performer in basketball and football for the Tomcats. He is largely regarded as the greatest athlete of that era in Kentucky.
He was named to the All-State team after the Tomcats won the state basketball title in 1928 and also took home the sportsmanship award. He was called for only two fouls the entire season!
Johnson became Morehead Teacher College’s director of physical education in 1936 and maintained that position through 1953. During that time, he coached basketball, football, baseball and track. MSU’s gymnasium, Ellis T. Johnson Arena, was named in his honor.
Johnson led the Eagles football team to a record of 54-44-10, and the 1941 baseball team to a 5-2 record. Johnson’s basketball squads went 176-158. His best year as the football coach came in 1937 when the Eagles went 7-1. His best basketball season was in 1937-38 when the Eagles finished 16-8.
Johnson coached at Marshall from 1963-69, compiling a 68-80 record. Johnson led the Thundering Herd to a 20-8 record and second-place finish in the Mid-American Conference in 1966-67 and a 17-8 mark and runner-up finish in the MAC in 1967-68.
Marshall’s 1966-67 basketball team was his best. Besides finishing the school’s best season in 11 years, the Thundering Herd grabbed 10 victories in 12 MAC games leading to Marshall’s first appearance in the National Invitation Tournament in Madison Square Garden. The NIT trip was exciting as the Herd defeated Villanova and Nebraska before losing in the semifinals to Marquette in a triple-overtime heartbreaker and then to Rutgers in the consolation game.
Being inducted into the Kentucky Basketball Hall of Fame with him are: Coy Creason of Brewers, Wesley Cox of Louisville Male, Clarence Glover of Caverna, Joe Hamilton of Lexington Dunbar, Ronnie Lyons of Mason County, Rudy Macklin of Shawnee, Todd Tackett of Paintsville, Connie Goins of Western Hills, Kim Denkins of Nicholas County, Bill Mike Runyon of Paintsville, Bob Tripure of Lexington Henry Clay and Lexington Catholic, and Patrick Payne of Hazard.
Ellis Johnson joins former Tomcat greats Larry Conley and Harold Sergent in the Kentucky Basketball Hall of Fame. Conley and Sargent played on the 1961 championship team and Conley came back the next year and took the Tomcats to a second-place finish. Kenn Johnson was also on that team.