At age 42, Ben Johnson is the youngest head coach in the Big Ten. He is one of four alums coaching their alma mater in the league along with Michigan’s Juwan Howard, Purdue’s Matt Painter, and Indiana’s Mike Woodson.
Johnson, Howard, and Woodson are also the league’s only Black men’s head basketball coaches, down one from last season. Last season, the Gopher coach also had one of the league’s youngest squads in the veteran-laden Big Ten.
At times, the young Gophs, whose average age was 20.38 years, with three freshmen all averaging at least 20 minutes per game in ’22-’23, looked overmatched.
As a result, losses mounted, and Minnesota finished 9-22. But at the same time, none of his players checked out despite all the defeats on the court and wins off it (the team posted a program record 3.36 GPA).
That’s a great telltale sign of good coaching and a tribute to Johnson and his coaching staff. However, it isn’t being fully recognized as too many Gopher fans and local media have taken a win-or-gone posture and have instead focused on the losses, as well as Johnson’s age and inexperience (in their eyes), even though the Minneapolis native began coaching in 2005.
A couple of websites recently listed Johnson among several DI HCs on the hot seat this season. This elephant-in-the-room question began our one-on-one conversation with Coach Johnson (BJ).
MSR: Is your third season as Gopher coach a win-or-else scenario?
BJ: I don’t look at it as make-or-break. This season is just the next year and where we are trying to go with the program. The way I look at it, each year, you have to be as competitive as you have to be. This is the year where we take a step… This is the first time we have guys returning. [We] are not totally teaching it to a new roster.
MSR: Minnesota for the first time in your tenure, your team has depth—15 healthy players on the roster, including Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen back after two consecutive years of knee surgery. Sophomores Pharrel Payne, Braeden Carrington, and Joshua Ola-Joseph all played at least half a game each season as freshmen.
BJ: These guys and what they went through last year, you can tell the dividends that it is paying right now. You can’t replace the experience they got, even though they’re young. I think the confidence they have… has really been positive for the program, and exciting for me to see.
MSR: The Gophers play Macalester on Thursday, November 2, in an exhibition contest. Then they open the 2023-24 regular season on Monday, November 6, versus Bethune-Cookman, an HBCU. Gopher fans will see consecutive games of Black coaches leading their squads. You also play home games versus Missouri (November 16), and Arkansas-Pine Bluff (November 21), teams also coached by Black head coaches.
BJ: There’s a lot of talented coaches across the country, whether it’s at an HBCU or at a Power Five, or a mid- or lower-level that do a phenomenal job. I think we [as Black coaches] always try to use our platform in every single way possible to expand diversity, whatever that diversity might look like.
MSR: Your prospectus on the 23-24 Gophers?
BJ: We feel like we have a team where we are going to put ourselves in the position to be competitive each game—non-conference or conference—and find ways to close out games. The last couple of years we have been able to be competitive to a certain degree and put ourselves in position to win games but haven’t been able to.
The wins will take care of themselves. Finding ways to win games… I think that is what we are looking for. We know we have experience, and we know we have the talent to make us competitive. We have to learn how to win.
I’m really excited about the state of where we are at. You want to win every game and you want to be as competitive as you can. I know everybody wants it right away. But the hard part is taking it in stages. I’m really happy with where we’re at and the progress that we were able to make.
Now [I] feel we can go toe-to-toe with everyone in our league from a competitive standpoint.