Whalen gone; Johnson stays
March Madness is in full bloom with NCAA games this week. The present state of University of Minnesota men’s and women’s basketball is, however, in bad shape, some would say, including fans, local media, and social media who have been loud in their “Chicken Little” alarms about the respective programs.
Lindsay Whalen resigned two weeks ago, after five seasons amidst recent criticism. Is Ben Johnson’s job safe after two seasons?
His boss, Minnesota AD Mark Coyle, last week assured me that the Minneapolis native is good. “There is no doubt winning has a significant importance at our level,” he noted. “There is a lot of attention to Ben and what he does. Nobody wants to win more than the coach.”
It’s so wrong to compare Johnson’s second year to Northwestern, the Big Ten’s regular-season runner-up, which last season was the league’s worst. Or to Rutgers, which finished last in 2017-18, but looks like it will make its third consecutive NCAA trip this year.
Two years ago, Johnson came in with virtually no players in the program. He coached a league-high 10 newcomers, mostly transfers last season, and eight newcomers this season.
No school in the veteran-laden Big Ten had as many youngsters playing major minutes. Three first-year players logged over 20 minutes a game, and four freshmen figured prominently in the regular rotation this season.
Furthermore, the high expectations for this year’s Gophers men with such a young group definitely was unrealistic. This isn’t an excuse but a fact.
“This is a big, big job to be a head coach at a university, and it takes time,” said veteran broadcaster Lea B. Olsen, a Gopher alum. “You have to have patience with the coaches, because there’s just a lot to it.”
“It is tough seeing what they’re going through right now,” added Eric Curry, who played last season for Johnson—he is featured this week in “Sports Odds and Ends.” “I can see the potential” in the young Gophers, stressed Curry.
American University Sports Law Professor N. Jeremi Duru, whose field of interest includes racial and gender dynamics when it comes to Black coaches, told us, “We have often seen in sports unfair double standards that people of color in positions of power have faced.
“I’m not a Minnesotan, but from what I read [Johnson] came into a bad situation in terms of where the program is. So, in my view, you should allow somebody who came into a program like that several years to get it right. It seems premature for him to be terminated,” said Duru.
Minnesota finished overall 8-21, but 1-1 in Big Ten tournament play and 2-2 in games played in March.
Coyle said that he has confidence in Johnson: “I do think that the criticism” is unfair, he said. “Sometimes this negativity creeps in and muddles what you are trying to do. We will get there sooner than later.”
“I know it’s not a popular view. I just got to preach patience,” said Olsen.
Next: The MSR interviews Coach Ben Johnson