Dr. Neil Johnson, a retired SUNY Potsdam athletic administrator and coach, will receive the State University of New York Athletic Conference Dr. Patrick Damore Distinguished Service Award for his numerous years of commitment and contributions to the growth of the conference, the league announced Friday.
Johnson, who started at Potsdam in 1963 and worked at the college until 2000, will be recognized Monday at the annual SUNYAC spring awards banquet in Syracuse, N.Y. He joins Dr. Sam Molnar, a former athletic director, and Jerry Welsh, a two-time NCAA title-winning men’s basketball coach, as the only former SUNY Potsdam professionals to obtain the honor.
“The award is very special, especially when you see the list of people who have received this honor,” Johnson, 74, said. “To be on the list with Dr. Sam Molnar, my mentor, and Jerry Welsh … you don’t dream it, because those are two outstanding people. The fact that the award is in Pat Damore’s name is an honor in itself … he is Mr. SUNYAC.”
During his 37-year tenure the school, Johnson worked in several capacities, culminating in 1990 when he was named chair of health and physical education. He was also a professor of health and physical education, director of programs and operations at Maxcy Hall and head wrestling coach, and served in many other roles.
As wrestling coach from 1963-1987, Johnson guided the Bears to 146-119-3 dual record and coached 12 SUNYAC champions and 13 All-Americans, including two NCAA champions. Potsdam won its lone SUNYAC team title in 1973 at Maxcy Hall, one year after the building became the home of Bears athletics. One season later, the team finished fourth at the NCAA Division III Championships.
With nearly 25 years of experience as a coach and almost 40 years working as a professor, Johnson said he remembers the daily interaction with students and student-athletes.
“I miss the relationships with the students, especially with the wrestling team,” Johnson said. “I’m still close with a lot of them yet.”
A 1997 Bears Hall of Fame inductee, Johnson has several awards and honors to his name, including the President’s Award for Excellence in Public Service (1994), the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Professional Service (1996) and, most recently, the Leadership Through Service Award (2007).
Johnson is also credited as a founder of Potsdam’s Shane T. Shaul Fitness Center, and was instrumental in creating a community health major and outdoor/wilderness education minor within the health and physical education department.
In 2001, Johnson established Stimulating Opportunities After Retirement, or SOAR, for retirees in the North Country to take classes and learn from their peers on a daily basis. The program, which consists of two 10-week terms with 60 classes available per term, will celebrate its 10th anniversary next week.
“It’s a volunteer organization where members pay one fee, have access to an unlimited number of classes per term and can take trips with the group,” Johnson said. “SUNY Potsdam agreed to let us base the program here, and we’ve received fitness center access and parking.”
Johnson and his wife, Marilyn, who currently reside in Potsdam, are currently working to establish a scholarship for students studying in the health and physical education department.
A native of Upper Darby, Pa., Johnson earned his bachelor’s in health and physical education from West Chester State College in 1958. He went on to earn a master’s in physical education from Penn State in 1960 and a doctorate in physical education from Springfield (Mass.) College in 1977.