Athletics News
#TBT Big Ten Medal of Honor - Disa Johnson 1988

April 3, 2014

By Lexi Shurilla, staff writer | @SusanAlexisS

Illinois Big Ten Medal of Honor Winners

One of the most prestigious conference awards in college athletics, the Big Ten Medal of Honor was first awarded in 1915 to one student-athlete from the graduating class of each university who had "attained the greatest proficiency in athletics and scholastic work." In 2014, the conference celebrates the 100th anniversary of this prestigious award.

Disa Johnson (Garner) made quite an impact on volleyball at Illinois. As a player, she helped lead the Illini to a 124-28 record in her four seasons as she guided Illinois to three NCAA appearances, including the national semifinals in 1987 and a pair of Big Ten titles (1986-87). She led the Big Ten in assists for two years (1985-86). After her career as a player, Johnson went on to have a long-standing career as a college coach, including a stint at Illinois, and is known for making life in the classroom just as important as life on the court for her student-athletes.


A Western Springs, Ill. native, Johnson made a name for herself on the University of Illinois campus. She was a standout player for the Fighting Illini from 1984-87 and was the captain of two teams that won Big Ten Conference championships (1986, 1987). Illinois' 1987 team reached the semifinals of the NCAA tournament and the Illini went 124-28 in her four seasons. Johnson was an All-Big Ten selection for the 1985-87 seasons and set Illinois' career assists record with 5,516 in 141 matches. She was even named to the Big Ten's all-decade team for the 1980s.

Johnson also excelled in the classroom. She capped her career by earning All-Big Ten academic team laurels three times and was a GTE/CoSIDA Academic All-American as a senior as well as being given the Big Ten Medal of Honor in 1988. She graduated with a bachelor of science in kinesiology with a minor in business and chose to come back to Illinois to pursue graduate school, receiving her master's degree in kinesiology and sports administration in 1992.

After Illinois

Johnson turned to coaching after her undergrad, and spent two seasons as an assistant coach at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, with the team finishing in the top-10 nationally in Division II. While pursuing her master's at Illinois, Johnson became an assistant coach for the Illini. During four seasons, the Fighting Illini posted a 90-39 record, finishing 17th in the nation in 1990, 1991 and 1993, and as high as fifth in 1992.

Disa Johnson Highlights and Achievements
 Hometown: Western Springs, Ill.

 Illinois career: 1984-1987

 Big Ten Medal of Honor Winner: 1988

 Big Ten All-Decade Team (1980s)

 Three-time All-Big Ten & Academic All-Big Ten Selection (1985-1987)

 Led Illinois to two Big Ten titles (1986, 1987) and the 1987 NCAA national semifinals

 Academic All-American (1987)

 GTE/CoSIDA Academic All-American

 Ranks second in Illinois history in assists (5,550), third in aces (154) and 10th in block assists (339)

 Illinois volleyball assistant coach (1990-1993)

 Former head coach at Missouri and James Madison

 Married to current Illinois women's track & field head coach Ron Garner

Johnson began her head coaching career in 1994 at the helm of the Missouri Tiger volleyball program where she stayed for six seasons. At Mizzou, she took the program and proceeded to lead the Tigers to their first Top 25 national ranking. Johnson put together the best talent ever assembled for Mizzou volleyball. In 1997, she signed Missouri's first ever Fab 50 recruit in setter Heather Gerber, and in 1999 she signed the top student-athletes out of both St. Louis, Mo., and Kansas City, Mo. Each class Johnson recruited contained all-state selections who had been successful multi-sport athletes.

After Mizzou, Johnson accepted a position at James Madison University in Virginia. At JMU, she recorded seven winning seasons during her 10-year tenure beginning in 2000. Under her direction, the Dukes reached the Colonial Athletic Association semifinals five times, the CAA title match twice and won the CAA championship in her first season in 2000 to advance to the NCAA Championship. Garner also went 79-67 in CAA matches, finishing as high as second in the regular season in 2002 and 2006, and earned CAA Coach of the Year honors in each of those seasons. JMU players received 20 All-CAA honors, six All-CAA rookie-team honors, 15 All-State laurels, one CAA Defensive Player of the Year award and one CAA Rookie of the Year award since the 2000 season. In 2009, Garner guided the Dukes to a final mark of 11-19, giving her a 10-year record of 157-129 (.549), the most wins for any coach in JMU history before she resigned as head coach.

As part of her coaching, Johnson stressed balance between academics and athletics for all of her student-athletes. She held the Mizzou Tigers to a GPA of 3.0 and that number did not fall since she first came to MU. Johnson's JMU teams posted a 3.0 GPA nearly every semester since her arrival, including a program-record 3.328 GPA during the fall of 2004. The Dukes were honored with 42 CAA Commissioner's Academic Awards under Johnson's guidance.

Along with her playing and collegiate coaching experience, Johnson has years of camp and club experience. Most recently she was the head coach of a club team at Magnum Volleyball Club in South Carolina. She and Ron Garner were married in the spring of 2000. The Garners and their two daughters recently moved back to Champaign after Ron was hired as the head coach of the Illinois women's track and field program.