Johnny Hughes, a two-sport letterman in high school, had a clear goal in mind when he started his collegiate career — to become a Division I athlete.
The path, however, wasn’t quite as clear. Ultimately, it would lead him through Fayetteville Tech, where he committed to collegiate basketball, capitalizing on his height, athleticism and work ethic to propel his career forward.
Now, five years after graduating high school, Hughes has signed with University of Incarnate Word, sealing his long-held goal and becoming the first FTCC athlete to reach the NCAA Division I level.
“No matter where you start, just keep going,” Hughes says. “Maximize your opportunities.”
As a prep athlete at Terry Sanford High School, Hughes was a part of the Bulldogs’ 2015 state championship team and 2016 state runner-up squad.
But as a role player on a stacked team, Hughes didn’t attract the interest of college recruiters on the basketball court. That changed when Hughes joined the football team his senior year.
An athletic 6-foot-5 with 4.5-second 40-yard speed, Hughes was a valuable addition to the wide receiving corps. And the move placed him in the path of a number of recruiters, who were already on the scene to look at DI defense targets Mark Gilbert and Isaiah Stallings, who would go on to sign with Duke and N.C. State respectively.
Football at first
Hughes signed with Louisburg’s football program, expecting to use the NJCAA school as a springboard after a year.
“I thought it would be a year at a junior college and then on to a Division I program the next year,” Hughes says.
What he discovered instead was that he missed basketball.
“I realized that I didn’t love football the way I love basketball,” Hughes says.
Hughes decided to return to Fayetteville, enrolling at Fayetteville Tech as a student in the school’s HVAC certification program.
Certification in hand, Hughes was working in the HVAC field at Fayetteville State in the summer of 2017 when he decided to come to a workout for FTCC’s basketball team, invited by then-assistant coach Steven Mims.
Head coach Brian Hurd was immediately impressed.
“I could see his raw talent,” Hurd says. “He told me he’d just finished playing football at another junior college and he felt it was time for a change. We talked about the academic side of things, and Johnny told me he hadn’t done as well as he would have liked at his former school.”
Hurd and Hughes struck a deal that if Johnny could get his grades up to par, he’d have a spot on the team.
Hughes, with a path to his dream of being a DI athlete finally becoming clearer, jumped at the chance.
“If I really wanted to become a basketball player at a university, something must change instantly,” Hughes said. “Being a student-athlete at Tech was a grind, but I always knew God gave me this opportunity for a reason.”
A second chance
Hughes maintained a singular focus, both in academics and on the court, of earning a four-year offer.
“I’m hard-working in the classroom to be rewarded with the opportunity to work hard on my craft in basketball,” he says.
Hughes eventually got his GPA up to a 3.7, piling on the coursework with a 17-hour and then an 18-hour semester load to graduate on time.
On the court, Hughes played inside at power forward for the Trojans and worked off-hours with a trainer to develop his perimeter game.
“That’s when I realized that his work ethic was unbelievable,” Hurd says.
He also grew three inches while at FTCC, ultimately filling out a 6-foot-8 frame at 200 pounds.
As a sophomore, Hughes averaged 15.1 points and 11 rebounds per game, the only player in all of Region 10 Division II to average a double double on the year.
Four-year college programs took notice.
“It wouldn’t be uncommon to come in our practice and see four or five coaches from every level in the stands watching his every move,” Hurd says.
UMO the right fit
After earning an Associate in Arts from FTCC, Hughes accepted a full scholarship from University of Mount Olive, joining the Division II Conference Carolinas program as a junior ahead of the 2019-20 season.
“That is the JUCO dream,” Hughes says, “It wasn’t DI, but I was more than happy to have my education fully paid for and to get to play basketball at a university.”
Hughes flourished at UMO, finishing his senior year leading the team with 17.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game and earning first-team All-Conference Carolinas honors.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in business management and earned another scholarship — this time a full ride to University of Incarnate Word to pursue a master’s degree in sports management.
“Johnny is a young man that will give UIW his absolute all everyday on and off the court while working on his master’s degree,” Hurd says. “And while he might have a chance to play professionally, he is already preparing himself for life after basketball, and that is the mindset of a young man that has a bright future.”
UIW made the program’s first postseason appearance this season, reaching the Southland Conference Tournament with a team that featured just one senior.
He’ll start at UIW later this summer.
“I tried to be the best college player I can be at Mount Olive, which I believe I did,” Hughes says. “I learned a lot more than I imagined. I stuck to being a student-athlete, and God gave me another chance to fulfill my dream of playing Division I basketball.”