New Gopher hoops coach is Black and a native son

Gophers Basketball Coach
Courtesy of U of M Ben Johnson

We unabashedly asked Minnesota AD Mark Coyle a couple of weeks ago during a Zoom media call if he would seriously consider Black candidates for the vacant Gopher MBB coaching job. Minnesota historically has been one of the Big Ten’s Whitest schools—there is no Black HC among its men’s and women’s sports. If a Black were hired, this would be the first under Coyle.

“Charles, I can tell you that [University] President Gable, myself and the university are committed to diversity, and we’re committed to having a very diverse pool of candidates we want to look at. We want to cast a very wide net that we can find the next great leader for our basketball program,” Coyle pledged.  “I can assure you Charles, we will have a diverse pool of candidates.”

The school announced Monday that Ben Johnson has been named Gopher’s head men’s basketball coach, the school’s fifth overall Black head coach in its history. He also is the first Minneapolis native in recent memory hired to lead a Minnesota sports program. 

“Ben is a proven coach who is ready to lead his own program,” said Coyle in a release statement. “He has earned this opportunity.”

After his 2005 graduation from the U, Johnson began his coaching career as a graduate assistant (2005-06) at the University of Dayton, then held assistant coaching stints at Texas-Pan American (2006-08), Northern Iowa (2008-12), Nebraska (2012-13), Minnesota (2013-18) and Xavier (2018-21).

Johnson told the MSR last December when asked if he could see himself as a head coach one day, “That’s the goal. I am focused to do whatever I can to help Xavier win and be successful. 

Courtesy of Xavier Former Xavier Assistant Coach and new Gophers Coach Ben Johnson

“I think as an assistant coach, and as you get older, the ultimate goal is to have the opportunity to run your own program. But that comes with doing a good job where you are at, and having success where you are at.”

During his time at Xavier Johnson helped them to consecutive top-30 recruiting classes in 2019 and 2020, and the Musketeers posted a 51-37 record in three seasons with him on the bench.

Next week’s View will feature excerpts from Johnson’s March 23 introductory press conference. Apparently Johnson checked all the boxes Coyle had previously outlined: proven coaching experience, ability to recruit, commitment to education (Johnson has a sociology degree), already known in this area, etc.

And the Minnesota AD checked our box—he hired a Black coach. Now the question we ask is will Johnson be given the time and support to succeed as Gopher coach. 

Advancement of Blacks in Sports (ABIS) earlier this month issued three keys for Division I schools: Hire more Black coaches, commit to retaining and promoting Black coaches, and place a moratorium on the firing of Black coaches, who too often are not  given enough time to turn a program and are not rehired as are non-Black coaches.    

“Talking isn’t enough. They need to focus intentionally on doing that,” explained American University Sports Law Professor N. Jeremi Duru. “It is important that institutions recognize that diversity is a good thing. One thing we learned and know about sports is that it really impacts society. So when you see progress in sport, I think that leads into other institutions.”

Coyle said, “I am thrilled for [Johnson] to lead his alma mater, and I am excited for the future of our men’s basketball program.”

Finally…

Former WNBA All-Star Tonya Edwards was hired Monday an as assistant coach with the Chicago Sky. Her previous coaching stints include Los Angeles (assistant, 2016-18), Chicago Blaze HC (NWBL), assistant coach at University of Detroit-Mercy, and seven seasons as head women’s coach at Alcorn State.

Edwards was the Minnesota Lynx’s first-ever All-Star in 1999.

About Charles Hallman

Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at challman@spokesman-recorder.com

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