It didn’t hurt Ben Johnson’s chances to fill the University of Minnesota men’s basketball coaching vacancy when he arrived at an interview Sunday wearing a Gopher pullover.
Johnson likely accumulated a lot of maroon-and-gold gear during his two years as a Gophers guard and later in his five-year stint as an assistant coach. His wardrobe selection last weekend was casual, but it caught Minnesota Athletics Director Mark Coyle’s attention and cut to a crux in the matter on a right fit for the job.
Yet it was the plan Johnson articulated in the interview that impressed and convinced Coyle, Minnesota President Joan Gabel and other members of the school’s search committee to hire the 40-year-old Minneapolis native to be the Gophers next head coach.
Johnson’s resume has 16 years of experience as an assistant coach, including the past three at Xavier, but none running his own program. He knows this topic is the elephant in the room.
“With his experience at Xavier and the different coaches I talked to about Ben and his ability, I’m not worried about the in-game stuff,” Coyle said. “He knows how to X and O with anybody. He will learn how to do the timeouts. He will surround himself with a great staff.
“Ben talked about that when we met with him Sunday at our house,” Coyle continued. “We feel very comfortable and we are confident that we got the best person for Minnesota basketball to take us to the next level that this program deserves.”
What a Johnson-led Gopher team looks like and plays like has yet to be recruited from high school and in transfer portal, molded in practice and tested in games. It’s obviously to be determined.
“But I want to play a winning style whatever that may be based on personnel,” Johnson said. “I want to play an exciting style. I want to be hard-nosed. I want to have some grit and a little bit of nasty. Play with confidence and have a chip on our shoulder. I want to play the right way. We’re going to be a team that (understands) moving the ball is important to me on offense, getting a great shot is important to me on offense. I love the (3-pointer), as everybody does.”
Johnson has applied for other head coaching jobs, he said, so he knew to dial back his excitement as this process played out.
“You try not to ride the wave of emotion,” he said. “This one was particularly hard because as I became more and more invested, you’re almost expecting the breakup. You’re expecting the heartbreak. You’re taking yourself to that certain space knowing this is 50-50. I think over time, I realized exactly what they were looking for. I’ve always known what the need was, and I think I checked a lot of those boxes.”
Coyle said the interview process included roughly 10 candidates and was whittled down to a handful.
“You never feel great until you get the phone call,” Johnson said. “Even when I got the phone call, you see the name on the phone and it’s like, alright, this is judgment time. I pick it up, and you don’t know which way it’s going to go, and thankfully Mark and his staff had confidence in me. I’m here today and couldn’t be more excited.”
Once Johnson was hired, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called. The dean of Big Ten coaches was in a similar spot to Johnson 26 years ago: a first-time head coach at age 40.
“He embodies what … Michigan State is about,” Johnson said. “That’s kind of the role model I look at. Him and (Purdue coach) Matt Painter. Paint is the same way (in) Indiana. He’s a Indiana dude. You can tell Purdue players and Michigan State players. That’s going to be our goal. I want our fans to say, ‘That’s a Minnesota dude.’ I think you can do that because all three of us have that common thread. And we bleed it through and through. And we take a ton of pride in our state and our program. And we’re not going to fail.”
Coyle checked Johnson’s references with a call to Xavier head coach Travis Steele, who shared how he put Johnson in a leadership position on the staff, how Johnson worked closely on the offensive end of the court and tried to groom him for this jump.
Now at the top of the org chart, Johnson shared details on the types of assistants he will target, which Coyle circled back to point out. “That caught our attention,” he said.
“If you can add somebody that maybe has some head coaching experience that you can lean on, whether that’s in-game coaching, how to handle the press, how to handle certain things that, Year 1, I haven’t (had),” Johnson said. “… You look at that, you look at recruiting ties and those types of relationships geographically.”
Coyle was Kentucky’s deputy AD to Mitch Barnhart when the Wildcats hired John Calipari in 2009, and Coyle said he discussed the Minnesota opening with Calipari last week. “Coach Calipari always talks about the importance of recruiting,” Coyle relayed.
Coyle has stressed recruiting with every hire he’s made at Minnesota and put it as a primary point in the firing Richard Pitino last week and the hiring of Johnson on Monday.
Johnson, a DeLaSalle graduate, went to Northwestern for two years before transferring back to Minnesota.
“I want every kid within the state, just like me, they need to be looking forward to one day playing at Williams Arena,” Johnson said. “They need to look forward to trying to become a Gopher, and creating that energy and enthusiasm. We’ve got to do our job by selling it the right way, by recruiting them the right way and being aggressive. I wish we could take them all; we can’t. But we’ve just got to make sure we take the right ones.”
When it comes to his recruiting style, Johnson wants to be genuine and understand who prospects off the basketball court.
“I’m a normal guy and when you come here we’re going to have that total relationship. It’s not just going to be basketball,” Johnson said. “I’m going to want to know about your personal life and what you’ve got going on off the floor. Because hopefully this relationship will last more than just the four years, the two years, the three years that you’re here. I want it to last a lifetime. I want to build a culture of family, and that means a lot to me. Just selling that family value, selling our trust, integrity, competitiveness. And just selling that grit mentality that we’re going to have.”
Johnson’s recruiting efforts extend to the current Gophers roster, including freshman guard Jamal Mashburn Jr., who put his name in the NCAA transfer portal a day after Pitino was let go.
Johnson met with the team Monday and said he hopes players he has connections with from his previous stint at Minnesota can help. That includes graduate assistant Andre Hollins, senior center Eric Curry and junior guard Gabe Kalscheur.
“I don’t want any of those guys to leave,” Johnson said. “I want them to embrace this university, embrace this program and have a lot of pride in what we’re doing here.”