In an exclusive interview with Cougfan.com, Johnson talked about the highly publicized fracas underway between school and city.
With a foot firmly planted in both camps -- as the mayor overseeing the police department and as the iconic "Noooooooo Gainnnnn" public address announcer for Cougar football and basketball -- has it been awkward for Johnson?
"You talk about a tense time – I was a WSU faculty member teaching a news class and my students did an investigative report on the basketball team back in the ‘80s,” said Johnson. “But I showed up to the football game after the (recent) arrest and we had very good communication, everyone was professional.”
In light of these incidents, Johnson -- a now-retired, and beloved, broadcasting professor at the Murrow College -- wanted to make one very particular point about Washington State.
“The thing I hope Cougfan.com conveys … the culture up here is a whole different thing than at those other universities. This is a family. And yes, there are times that family members don’t get along… When you have family issues like these, we can get through them. We’re a family, for heaven’s sake,” said Johnson.
Prior to coming to WSU in 1980, Johnson's broadcasting career included stops at Los Angeles and Sacramento. He earned his PhD at Iowa and received his master's at UCLA.
"From my standpoint, we have extremely good cooperation with the university, and especially with the hiring of president Kirk Schulz. He wants to make sure we have a good relationship," he added. "To be quite frank with you, I’m able to text message him, he texts me back... When he first came on board I had a meeting with him -- one-on-one, there were no handlers in there. It was just a good, candid conversation between both of us."
In regard to the long-standing, and now fever-pitch, charge from Cougar partisans that Pullman Police officers target Cougar athletes, Johnson doesn't hesitate in his response: "I do not, in my heart, believe these police officers are targeting athletes … I have a very good police chief in Gary Jenkins and we’re getting positive reactions from coaches in terms of how they’re dealing with it."
He says police issues with the football team are fewer under Mike Leach, the head coach since 2012, than under previous coaching regimes.
There have been three incidents since late July involving Cougar football players, with four arrests.
“The way the media keeps talking about it, people probably think it’s a lot more than that,” said Johnson, who has been Pullman's mayor since 2004.
Agreed. But the vast majority of media reports -- and the resulting maelstrom -- have been driven by the public comments to the media made by Pullman Police commander Chris Tennant. Police statements to media on the recent incidents -- and also those stretching back years -- have at times been incendiary, to put it mildly.
“I know police chief Gary Jenkins is working on that,” Johnson said, noting that Jenkins is now taking a greater role in how press releases are written and sharing them ahead of time with WSU sports information director Bill Stevens. "That’s the kind of cooperation I’m trying to point out."
“And I believe there are some new protocols that have been established… We’ve come up with some different protocols that we might be using,” he said.
Johnson wouldn't comment specifically on what those protocols are/will be because they are still being formalized. But he wanted to stress the level of cooperation between WSU and the city, including a “wonderful, positive” meeting between WSU President Kirk Schulz, Jenkins and athletic director Bill Moos. Another positive meeting, Johnson said, took place between Jenkins and Mike Leach.
Johnson said Jenkins consistently has had open communication with WSU coaches "anytime something comes up (with an athlete)." He added that "even Bill Moos admitted maybe someone (at WSU) dropped the ball (on the incident involving Cougar linebacker Logan Tago), that didn’t get communicated all the way."
Another factor to compute when analyzing the situation, Johnson said, is the media reality of Pullman. As his unique, dual role attests, Pullman is a small college town, and as a result, media attention is different than a large city.
"We're a community of 32,650 (and) we’re very open, very transparent, and the media is every day looking for athletes' names on the police log. Does that happen all the time in Seattle? I don’t know. I don’t think so ... Over here, maybe (it's) a slow news day so they’re really looking for things… When you’re in a smaller community, things get elevated quicker in the press than they do in a large city," he said.
HERE'S A SAMPLING OF WHAT ELSE JOHNSON HAD TO SAY:
• ON COOPERATION BETWEEN POLICE AND COACHES: "This one (incident) never made the news media and I’m not going to give you any names but it did involve a football player: This summer, there was an interaction between a football player and a police officer. And the football player got a little lippy with the police officer. Everything was recorded on the police officer’s body camera. Our police department shared that with that player’s (position) coach. The coach said, ‘Let me tell you, that police officer conducted himself in a very professional manner… and we will handle this internally.’ That’s the kind of communication we’re having between the police and the athletic department, especially the football office."
• ON THE AGGRESSIVE OF THE PULLMAN POLICE: "I’ve been pulled over before when I didn’t have my lights on or had a broken tail light. That’s the first thing police officers look for in ANY community, not just a college town… and especially after 2 a.m. I’ve been in Seattle after 2 a.m. and you see a lot of police presence there too after 2 a.m."