Johnson eager to seize the opportunity

Courtesy U of M Ben Johnson

Recruiting in-state high school players had been a subject for several weeks leading up to the Gopher men’s hoops job opening. It certainly came up during Ben Johnson’s March 23 introductory press conference at the school’s Athletes Village.

Johnson told the small invited media contingent, including the MSR, “I can’t do it by myself. It takes help. We want to do our job…to keep those kids home.”

When we talked one-on-one later that day, Johnson spoke further on the recruiting subject. The Minneapolis native stated, “It’s our job to put out a product people can be proud of and a talent level people can enjoy watching.”

Attracting a lion’s share of Minnesota-born or -raised prep players isn’t something new, but it remains a challenge for any Gopher coach. The state’s largest university never had a lifetime lock on these players, especially Black players over the years.

Now, with NCAA restrictions still in place on recruiting on and off campus due to coronavirus protocols, “I think you got to be creative with our virtual game plan,” noted Johnson. “You got to do a ton of Zooms. You got to be creative with your presentations. It is the new normal.”

Three years ago there were zero Black men coaching in the Big Ten. In less than two weeks, the conference now has three as Johnson joined Michigan’s Juwan Howard and Micah Shrewsberry, who Penn State introduced on Monday as its new men’s basketball coach.  

Still, less than 20% of all Division I HCs are Black.

“Guys like myself haven’t been offered these opportunities in the past,” said Johnson when the MSR asked him to briefly reflect on being the Gophers’ fourth Black MBB coach in school history and first Black head coach at the school since 2013. “That’s the elephant in the room.”

Minnesota AD Mark Coyle later told us, “I can’t tell you how great he was” in his interviews with Johnson. “I absolutely love his vision. He is going to give us every ounce of energy and everything he has.

“We hired the best person for the job,” he said.

“I’m not Tubby [Smith] or Richard [Pitino],” said Johnson of his two immediate predecessors. “I’m myself. I got to be who I am.”

Many PWMs (primarily White media) have brought up the fact that this is Johnson’s first head coaching job, but he has 15 years of coaching experience that include five seasons as a Minnesota assistant coach (2013-18), and he left a similar job after three seasons at Xavier (2018-21). 

Johnson admitted interviewing for other head coaching jobs in the past. “I’ve been on interviews where I thought that I absolutely crushed it, there’s no way I’m not getting this job. And I didn’t get it,” he recalled. Although he ultimately got the winning call from Coyle, Johnson said he was prepared for the worst. “I had a little sense of calm because I knew there was nothing more that I could have done. I thought [the interview] was convincing. I was confident and at ease.”

He said he’s a better coach now than a few years ago and ready to run his own program. “If I had become an HC five years ago, I don’t know if I would have been successful.

“With age comes growth. Because of what I learned over those five years, I am confident.” And ready. “We got to do it the right way.”

 Breaking news: Indiana announced Sunday they’re hiring a longtime Black NBA assistant as their new men’s basketball coach.