"Who do you think are the best coaches in the area?" Johnson asked. "My philosophy is our kids deserve the best we can find. I haven't talked to anyone yet, but I am not opposed to giving them a call to see what interest, if any, they might have. Usually either one of two things will happen: They will express an interest and maybe get a raise, or they will say they are happy where they are. But I want to start at the top and see what we can do. Why not give our kids the very best coach we can find?"
Hammons made about $13,000 annually as Mercer's coach, the most of any area coach when his various stipends were combined. Johnson says the salary for the next coach is "negotiable."
Smith and Harp
Smith, 46, says he has not been contacted about any jobs, but did not rule out listening to offers both on the high school and collegiate level.
"I just have to have a chance to sit down and decide where my heart is," Smith said. "This is my 22nd year of coaching. That's a long time in the high school ranks. I have put a lot of years into it. I just have to decide what route I want to do. I have to see what is out there."
Harp, 51, has been coaching 27 years and says he plans on being at Danville another four or five years.
"What else would I do? I would be interested in college if the right things opened up, but I still enjoy what I am doing here. As long as we have the means to have a good program, I would be happy to stay here," Harp said. "If it ever becomes difficult to get coaches or be competitive, then I would look somewhere else. At this point, that hasn't happened. But if someone knocks on my door, I would talk. You always have to listen."
Two other names that also have been rumored as possible Mercer candidates are Bell County's Dudley Hilton and Mason County's David Buchanan, a former Mercer player.
Johnson wouldn't rule out hiring an assistant coach from a proven program, either. That could make coaches like Chris Pardue and Chris Mason of Boyle viable candidates, along with Danville assistants Marty Jaggers and Jerry Perry, both former head coaches.
"I am not opposed to hiring a good assistant from a program that has been successful and knows how to win," Johnson said. "We won't narrow our search to only head coaches."
Several selling points
Johnson feels he has several selling points.
One, the new coach will not only be well paid, but he will also be able to bring at least one assistant coach with him. "Beyond that, we have some good, dedicated assistant coaches who will want to learn and be part of a successful program," Johnson said.
Two, Mercer competes in Class AA, a class that does not have a team that has dominated the playoffs for years.
"We have been in the running for the district title the last six or seven years. Now we want to take it a little farther," Johnson said.
Third, Mercer could have a 30,000-square-foot indoor practice facility ready by the 2006 season. A warehouse close to the football field has already been purchased and when finished will have an upper level with coaching offices and an observation deck overlooking the main playing area.
"I am using that as a big selling point," Johnson said. "The only other school with something close is Corbin, and ours will be even larger."
Johnson hopes the salary, indoor facility and chance to become an annual Class AA state title contender will bring the type of coach he wants to Mercer.
"We are not going to be afraid to pursue some of the state's very best coaches," Johnson said. "I think we have a golden opportunity to go after the very best and that's what we are going to do."