Sports Odds and Ends
Subtle or not-so-subtle shots at Minnesota Men’s Basketball Coach Ben Johnson have already made their way onto the public sphere, seven games into his third season on the job.
Star-Tribune Columnist LaVelle E. Neal III’s November 16 column declared after two rebuilding seasons—and not even a month into a new season—that it’s now “prove it time” for Johnson.
The column came on the same day Johnson’s Gophers hosted Missouri at The Barn, a match-up between two Power 5 Black coaches.
Unfortunately, U of M’s 70-69 defeat after squandering a 20-point lead didn’t bode well for Johnson, a Minneapolis native and Minnesota graduate.
“Year three needs to be about raising expectations,” wrote Neal. “Wins would be the tangible proof that Gopher men’s hoops is headed in the right direction.”
The newspaper’s only Black sports columnist also briefly and unfairly compared Johnson with Missouri’s Dennis Gates, who was hired in 2022.
Gates went 25-10 last season and made the NCAAs in its first season. Last season Johnson went 9-22 but did win a Big Ten tournament game.
“How much better will be determined by how they learn from Thursday’s debacle,” Neal said a few days later in his Sunday column.
Last week, in his weekly press conference, Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz called today’s TV analysts “coach killers” for their oft-unfair criticism and influence on people’s perceptions of coaches.
I would apply this to mainstream print columnists as well: Neal’s column served as planting seeds of doubt about Johnson in the minds of Minnesota’s fans.
However, here at the state’s oldest Black newspaper, we unabashedly support Black coaches. It’s perfectly OK when even-handed criticism is warranted but talking about Johnson like a lame duck seven games into the 2023-24 season is totally uncalled for.
“One game does not define a team nor a season,” Gates said during his postgame comments before speaking with the MSR. “He’s doing a great job … Great respect around the country,” Gates said of Johnson. “I’m excited about the growth of Ben Johnson and what he’s been able to do.”
Dave Dickerson is in his sixth season as head men’s basketball coach at the University of South Carolina-Upstate. He guided the Spartans to one of the program’s most successful seasons, a second consecutive fourth seed in the Big South Postseason Tournament and earned a bid in the College Basketball Invitational last season.
The Gophers, in bounce-back fashion, defeated USC-Upstate 67-53 on November 18, in another Black coach versus Black coach match-up.
“I thought his coaching staff did a good job in really inserting the right people in the lineup,” Dickerson said of Johnson and his staff afterward. “This is probably his best team that he’s had since he’s been here.”
Seeing two Black coaches on opposite sidelines coaching non-HBCU squads should be lauded, not unfairly pitted against each other by the media.
“I cannot wait for that day when people don’t have to ask what it’s like to be a minority coach. What’s it like to be a great coach?” Missouri AD Desiree Reed-Francois told the MSR.
Reed-Francois is the first female athletic director in Missouri’s history and the first Latina and WOC athletic director at the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
She hired Gates a year after her appointment in 2021, after four years as the University of Nevada-Las Vegas athletic director.
Finally, Johnson, Gates, and Dickerson, if given the chance, can lead programs without unfair or premature criticism.
“I think Ben is gonna do an unbelievable job here,” concluded Dickerson.