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UC to Award Highest Honor to Sportscaster Alumnus

Lewis Johnson, sportscaster who has worked with NBC, CBS, ABC and ESPN, will receive an honorary doctorate at the April 29 Commencement ceremony.

Date: 4/21/2017
By: Jac Kern
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Sportscaster Lewis Johnson reports in front of a camera.

The University of Cincinnati will bestow its highest award, an honorary doctorate, to alumnus Lewis Johnson during the university’s April 29 Commencement ceremony. Johnson is a sports broadcaster, UC alumnus and member of the UC Athletic Hall of Fame. He will receive an Honorary Doctor of Letters.

As a Northwest Senior High School athlete in Cincinnati, Johnson ran the 400 meters for the Knights, graduating in 1982 with a best of 51.5 for the 400-meter race. However, with that time he did not qualify for the state track meet. Johnson’s father encouraged him to head to his hometown school, the University of Cincinnati, and for the first two years did not participate in athletics. The previous record holder and his good friend in high school, Doug Wiesman, now a captain in the Cincinnati Police Department, talked him into going out for the UC track team, which he did in 1985.

During his first two years at UC, Johnson ran 400 meters for the Bearcats with a best of 48.90 in 1986. With one more year of eligibility, Johnson concluded that the 400 was too short, so he switched to the 800-meter race, a wise decision. His senior indoor season in 1987 was remarkable, with personal records of 1:02.68 for 500 meters, 1:10.64 for 600 yards, 2:09.16 over 1000 yards and 2:22.64 for 1000 meters. Thirty years later these marks stand as follows on the all-time UC list: 500 meters (first), 600 yards (second), 1000 yards (first) and 1000 meters (first). His three indoor school records still stand.

Johnson’s senior outdoor season was especially impressive as he specialized in the 800 meters, the sprint medley relay and the 4x400 meters relay. Johnson’s 800-meter time of 1:47.00 still stands as the UC record, as does his sprint medley relay mark of 3:16.44, which was fifth in the United States that year and highlighted by his stunning anchor leg of 1:45.8 at the Drake Relays. His 1985 4x400 relay mark of 3:09.93 lasted for 25 years and was just broken in 2010. He was second to Olympic Trials finalist, Ocky Clark, in the Metro Conference 800-meter final and his 4x400 team was Metro Conference champion. The best was yet to come as he earned All-American honors in 1987 for 800 meters with a time of 1:47.00 in Baton Rouge, good for seventh place. For many years, his 1:47.00 was the Ohio collegiate record.

Johnson qualified for the 1988 Olympic Trials in Indianapolis and it was there that an unexpected conversation in a hotel lobby, thanks to a close friend and fellow competitor Ken Washington, led him to meet two European international track meet organizers. One week later, Johnson received a call in his dorm room in Sawyer Hall, inviting him to come to Belgium for a race. Johnson’s family and friends helped him with resources to make the trip and a week later he raced in a small town outside of Brussels. Johnson credits that Indianapolis conversation, the trip to Belgium and the first international race for taking his life in a completely different direction forever.

Later that summer he was invited to train in Los Angeles as a member of the Santa Monica Track Club alongside American 800-meter record holder, Johnny Gray. Johnson returned to the Olympic Trials in 1992, reaching the semi-final round. He also returned to UC, earning his bachelor’s degree in communications. Johnson wrapped up his seven-year professional running career in Europe and other parts of the world in 1995. His running accomplishments earned him entrance into the University of Cincinnati Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999.

As illustrious as his collegiate athletic career was, Johnson has gained even more distinction as a network broadcaster of track and field as well as many other sports for several different broadcast companies. Johnson has worked nine consecutive Olympic Games as an announcer for NBC, starting with the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002, 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Torino Winter Olympics in 2006, 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games and the London 2012 Summer Olympics. In 2014 he covered the Sochi Winter Olympics, returning to Russia two weeks later to work his first Paralympic Games. Doing the same in 2016, Johnson worked trackside at the Rio Summer Games, covering Usain Bolt of Jamaica and his historic Olympic finish, then returning for the Paralympic events in Brazil. For the Winter Games, Johnson typically works as the reporter at the bobsled, luge and skeleton venue.

He often shares the story of his devastating disappointment in not being able to make the U.S. Olympic track team in 1988 and 1992, having long dreamed of and worked hard for that honor, but that his Olympic dream actually came true in another way as an NBC Olympic broadcaster in 2000 — a very emotional and fulfilling accomplishment.

Immediately after covering his first Olympics in Sydney in 2000, Johnson was tapped to join the network’s coverage of the NBA on NBC, once interviewing San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker in French during a 2002 NBA playoff telecast. For five seasons he was a sideline reporter for Notre Dame football with Tom Hammond and Pat Haden, and has been a part of myriad events for NBC for the last 18 years.

In many ways, Johnson is the face of U.S. track and field coverage, as his trackside interviews of winners and losers is what you see and hear after each event concludes. He is a regular on nearly every American track and field broadcast, including long-distance events like New York and Boston Marathons, collegiate meets and conference championships, domestic and international track and field events, as well as World Championships and Olympic Games.

His philosophy entails a belief in detailed preparation for every event he covers, and diligent work to earn the trust and respect of athletes from many sports across the world, which gives him the opportunity to offer the viewers an authentic insight into the athletes with whom he speaks in their greatest moments of triumph or biggest disappointments, on the smallest to the biggest global sports stages.

Johnson continues his career with NBC Sports and Olympics, and is contracted to work through the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games. He recently completed a new agreement with the Pac-12 Network to cover college football, basketball and some track and field. Johnson just finished another edition of the March Madness College Basketball Tournament with CBS and Turner Sports and is currently in the middle of the working another NBA Playoffs series for Turner Sports, stepping away from his assignment to be in Cincinnati April 29 to receive this honor. Johnson is currently working on his first book that will be titled, “Get Your Gold, Win or Lose.”

Johnson is one of two recipients of honorary degrees at April Commencement. Former UC president and current Chancellor of the State University of New York Nancy Zimpher will receive the other award.