NATCHITOCHES – Johnnie Emmons’ title to most was “Coach,” but he was a teacher first and foremost.
Education always came first for Emmons, according to those who knew the longtime Northwestern State coach and former student-athlete. A memorial service for Emmons, who died at 91 early Saturday morning, has been set for 5 p.m. Thursday at Trinity Episcopal Church in Natchitoches.
Emmons is survived by his wife, Nelda Madden Emmons, his son Johnnie Calvin Emmons III and wife Teresa Norman Emmons, his daughter Melanie Emmons Biggs, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“He was very particular about our studies,” said Willie Paz, a 2015 N-Club Hall of Fame inductee who went 19-4 as the Gulf South Conference champion at the No. 1 spot in 1973 and graduated with a 3.5 grade point average.
“He was really like a father to us. He made sure we were doing well in school and studying, not wasting time. Academics was his first inclination for all of us. He made sure we got a good education. That was the most important thing. The second was tennis.”
After starting his NSU coaching career as a football assistant in 1969, Emmons made his mark with the Northwestern State tennis program. He built a pipeline of South American stars for the Demons, helping NSU garner top-20 national rankings before starting the Lady Demons’ tennis program.
Following the conclusion of his three-year baseball coaching tenure in 1989, Emmons remained a visible presence around the NSU athletic program, attending games and continuing to offer suggestions to current coaches and student-athletes. He stayed a vital part of the N-Club, serving as treasurer from its inception through the turn of the century, and was a key figure in organizing N-Club functions during that time.
“On behalf of the NSU Athletic Department, condolences are expressed and prayers are offered for the family of Johnnie Emmons,” Director of Athletics Greg Burke said. “Coach Emmons was an NSU Demon through and through. He loved NSU and had an enduring passion for every aspect of this university, especially for the countless coaches, administrators, staff members and student-athletes whose lives he touched throughout the years.”
Emmons continued to dispense those nuggets of wisdom for as long as his health allowed.
“It was special,” said NSU head baseball coach Bobby Barbier, who first met Emmons during Barbier’s playing career from 2003-06. “Coach would come up probably three times a week. Whether it was sitting in the stands two hours before practice starting, waiting for me to go talk to the team, or coming by the office and visiting, he always had great advice for our staff. He was always interested in our staff.
“I gained a lot of wisdom from him, none more important than him talking about his wife and how important she was to him and how much he loved her. Hopefully, I can do a lot of things like he did.”
While he had two biological children, Emmons’ reputation as a father figure stretched deep into his Northwestern State career.
“Coach is the most influential person in my life,” said former Lady Demons tennis standout Shayne Fitzwilliam Duke, whom Emmons recruited to Natchitoches from South Africa with a “25-cent stamp.”
“He has orchestrated all my lifelong friendships from college. He is the reason I live in the United States. He was like a second father to me.”
That included doing the same for family members who matriculated at Northwestern State.
Emmons’ nephews, Steve and Kim Gaspard, played football for the Demons while Emmons was on staff, but his impression went as much away from the field as on it.
“He was always in control on the football field,” said Kim Gaspard, who eventually became a coach and a high school principal. “He was steady and calculating, which came from his math background. He was a very deep thinker. It wasn’t just common sense. He was able to put some very practical thought to it with that analytical background.
“A lot of his running backs treasured him. He’s got guys today, like Tony Papa up here in Shreveport and Mike Poole, who he impacted. He always went the extra mile for a kid. Even when he was through coaching, he was still instructing at Northwestern State. I ended up being his student assistant for a badminton class. He felt it would be good for me, since I was going to be a teacher.”
Duke recalled Emmons arriving to pick her up in Shreveport during her recruiting visit in “his overalls and his Cadillac.”
Duke and Paz, a Bolivian, came from different cultures but blended in seamlessly under Emmons’ tutelage, a hallmark of his coaching career.
Emmons constantly reminded Duke of his recruiting tactic that landed her in Natchitoches but did so in a way that stuck with his protégé.
“I still have the letter he wrote me,” she said.
A member of the Air Force during the Korean War, Emmons’ military background was clear. Both Duke and Kenny Knotts, who played three seasons of baseball under Emmons from 1987-89, recalled Emmons’ solid handshake and his old-school demeanor.
Paz, meanwhile, was presented a more tangible reminder.
“We were younger and were able to grow our hair longer,” he said. “One morning, coach Emmons comes in and woke up me and my roommate. He came in and said, ‘Everybody up?’ I said, ‘What’s up, coach?’ He said, ‘Get up and get dressed, and you’ll see.’
“I thought we were going to eat breakfast. He took us to a barbershop and made us get a haircut.”
Paz chuckled while recalling the surprise visit to the barber while Knotts also had to laugh recalling how Emmons, who took over the baseball team after Herbie Smith’s firing, helped break the ice with his new charges.
“The first weekend, he took us over to Judge (Richard) Ware’s house,” Knotts said. “That really broke the ice.”
Much like he had done with a veritable United Nations team of tennis players, Emmons molded a group from various backgrounds into a team.
“We had guys from Long Island, New York, to Puerto Rico to everywhere in between,” said Knotts, the current president of the Demons Unlimited Foundation. “Coach Emmons just knew how to relate to people.”
Emmons was a self-taught tennis coach but had impeccable credentials when it came to coaching baseball. His .458 batting average remains a school record since it was accomplished in 1952. In the succeeding 67 seasons, only one hitter has come within five points of Emmons’ mark.
That type of performance gave him credence with his baseball players, but it was his personality that won them over.
“The biggest thing with coach Emmons was we realized he cared,” Knotts said. “He followed up behind us. He wanted to know how each and every one of us was doing. We didn’t feel like he could solve an accounting problem for us, but he inspected what we did instead of expecting what we did. We knew he was going to hold us accountable. He did his very best to help us succeed not only on the field but also succeed in life. That’s the mark that, when you leave it on somebody, is a great quality.”
Fighting back tears, Paz simply said, “There are tons of things we could talk about. The list goes on and on probably for a couple of hours, and the rest of the guys would tell you the same. To us, to me, he was one of the best coaches I ever had. He was like my father.”