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Even in person, and even with all of his 260 pounds taking up a good portion of a hotel lobby, there is rather less of Rob Johnson than there would appear to be. In his bright orange warmup suit he sticks out amid the gentlemanly gray pinstripes of the business day like a tiger on the moon. But upon contact, he partially vanishes. His voice is high and tremulous. His handshake is soft and watery. It is as if Rob Johnson weren't there.
"The people who will tell you they don't know me," he says, "they know me very well. They know me, and they know what they did."
Indeed, nobody knows him anymore—or so they all say. At one time Johnson greeted reporters with a sheaf of letters from coaches, written on the letterheads of some of America's most prestigious colleges, presenting his credentials as though he were some sort of ambassador to those places where the talent that fuels the college game resides. Not anymore. Over the past year Johnson's credentials have been canceled. He is without a portfolio. Any conversation with Johnson's old coaching friends now invariably begins "I haven't talked to him in [fill in the blank] years." They are conjuring on him now, trying to make him disappear.
"Look, I know coaches all over the country," Johnson says. "I know Rick Pitino [of Kentucky]. I know P.J. Carlesimo [of Seton Hall]. I know Wade Houston [of Tennessee]."
"When I knew him, 19 years ago, he was a harmless kid," says Pitino.
"I never saw Rob that much," says Carlesimo, "and we never had any dealings with him to my knowledge, and none of our kids did, either."
"It's been two or three years since I saw him, back when I was [an assistant] at Louisville," says Houston.
They are just three of the coaches who know Johnson, and like everyone else, they are distancing themselves from him because Johnson, 35, is now nothing if not the living manifestation of college basketball's most recent ethical convulsion—the street agent. He is widely reputed to have brokered players at almost every level of the game, taking them from the AAU youth-league teams in New York City to some of the nation's highest-profile college programs. In fact many or the charges that prompted the NCAA to hit Texas A&M with a two-year probation in October, even after the school forced coach Kermit Davis to resign for his involvement in the scandal, were sparked by Johnson's efforts to arrange the transfer of former Syracuse forward Tony Scott to A&M.
A similar fate might befall Syracuse, whose coach Jim Boeheim is awaiting the results of an NCAA investigation into charges stemming from accusations that came to light when the Syracuse Post-Standard followed Johnson's trail into the unexplored heart of Boeheim's basketball team. If the findings of the Syracuse investigation, due to be announced in 1992, are at all reminiscent of the events that transpired at Texas A&M, then one reality about college athletics will be abundantly clear: Small change can bring down big money.
According to Texas A&M's response to inquiries from the NCAA Committee on Infractions, Davis and members of his staff at various times paid for Johnson, Scott and Scott's father, Anthony Sr., to travel between New York and College Station. The university stated that on one recruiting trip to New York, Davis left Johnson with a rented Lincoln—complete with cellular phone—for 28 hours after Davis had returned to campus. During that time Johnson rang up 28 calls on the car's telephone. Also, the university stated that Johnson accompanied Davis and another A&M coach to Rochester, N.Y., and that on the return trip the three of them bunked together in one room at a Ramada Inn in Clarks Summit, Pa. Davis later lied about the trip to school officials, though he subsequently admitted that it had occurred.