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Minnesota Basketball: An honest look at the hiring of Ben Johnson for Gopher basketball

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There are things to be excited about and questions to be answered.

University of Minnesota

Monday night it became clear that the Gophers are hiring Ben Johnson as their new head basketball coach. Johnson’s hire was a bit of a surprise, but the former Gopher player and assistant coach is a very interesting hire. There are a number of things to be very excited about with Johnson as your new Gopher coach and a number of significant questions.

The incredibly short version of this post is that Johnson has a fantastic reputation as a recruiter, especially in Minnesota. But he has had zero experience as a head coach and is now expected to lead a Big Ten program striving to get above mediocrity. That lack of experience is not insignificant. And his recruiting successes, especially locally, is something that could really turn around the Gopher program.

Most recently, Johnson was an assistant coach at Xavier for Travis Steele’s Muskateer’s. Steele has had this to say about Johnson.

“Ben is an outstanding coach and recruiter that will be a very successful head coach one day,” said head coach Travis Steele. “Ben is ‘Steady Eddy,’ he just is. He is the same guy every day. He is highly intelligent, very well thought out. He’s very good at everything. He is great on the floor, he’s great in skill development, he’s got a great offensive mind and he’s got great relationships with our players. He is a really good evaluator and recruiter. Everything he does he is very thorough and has helped us to mine the state of Alabama to get Colby Jones and New Jersey to get Zach Freemantle just to name a few. He’s got a great eye for talent and he’s very thorough, very diligent with his process. He is another guy I think is going to be a head coach sooner rather than later. He is terrific and we are fortunate to have him.”

“Ben will play a key role once again in developing our perimeter players. Ben is very intelligent. He is a very good teacher, takes a lot of pride in it and how he communicates his messages to our players. Ben is always studying the game. I don’t have to tell him to do that. He just does it. It’s his passion.”

The head coaching opportunity indeed came sooner. We will get to the positives and questions of this hire in a moment. But first ,let’s look back at Johnson’s journey that has led him to this point. (Yes, I do feel a bit like Chris Harrison on The Bachelor after that sentence.)

Johnson, out of DeLaSalle High School, chose to play basketball at Northwestern. He was a Wildcat for 2 seasons before transferring back to Minnesota and play for Dan Monson. 2003-04 was his senior season, playing with Kris Humphries and finishing as the team’s second leading scorer.

  • 2005-2006 - His coaching career began with being a graduate assistant at Dayton,
  • 2006-2008 - 2 seasons at Texas Pan American (now Texas Rio Grand Valley).
  • 2008-12 - He moved from there to Northern Iowa, on Ben Jacobson’s staff.
  • 2012-13 - Spent one year working for Tim Miles at Nebraska
  • 2013-2018 - Hired on Richard Pitino’s initial staff, responsible for a number of high-profile, local recruits.
  • 2018-21 - Worked for Travis Steele at Xavier

That has been the journey, Minnesota’s head coach is the destination. The most notable omission from his resume is that Johnson has never been a head coach and is now leading a Big Ten program. But what does he bring to the table?

THE POSITIVES

There are certainly reasons to be very excited about Ben Johnson as a head coach of the Gophers. The lack of being a head coach does not mean that he is lacking coaching experience. Nor does it mean that he may not be a very good head coach. He was going to get that opportunity one day, he just happened to land his first head coaching at his alma-matter. And arguably landed his dream job at age 41.

DUCK-DUCK-GREY-DUCK

He is one of us. Ben Johnson went to high school in Minnesota, he played for the Gophers and he coached for the Gophers. He is from here and the assumption is that if he were to build this program into something great, he will never leave her. This may or may not be true and fearing him leaving is irrational. But his deep local ties is significant.

Having played in the high school scene and having spent ample time recruiting here, he knows the Minnesota basketball landscape. There is zero learning curve and he has significant relationships established here. This is important and is not to be underestimated.

RECRUITING

Why should his relationships and knowledge of local basketball not be underestimated? Because it will pay off in recruiting. It is well established that Minnesota has an unusually high amount of high-caliber basketball players coming out of the North Star state. And Johnson has recruited a number of them.

We have heard since the Dan Monson years that whoever was the Gopher coach didn’t connect well with the local high school basketball coaches (and possibly by extension the AAU coaches of influence). We heard it with Monson, we heard with Tubby and we heard it with Pitino. This should absolutely not be the case with Johnson and if it is, then it comes down to some very unrealistic expectations from the local coaches.

But it isn’t just here, it isn’t just understanding the Minnesota scene. Johnson is a recruiter and he’s good at it. Go back to the quote from Steele on Johnson pulling kids for the Muskateers out of Alabama and New Jersey.

The Muskateer’s leading scorer this year was a freshman and recruited by Johnson. Their top recruit in the 2019 class, was recruited by Johnson. And going back to his time at Minnesota, you can thank him for Amir Coffey, Daniel Oturu, Gabe Kalscheur and others.

With the state producing SEVEN kids who are rated with 4-stars in the 2022 class, there couldn’t be a better time to hire someone like Ben Johnson to land a handful of them (more on that this week).

A MAN OF RELATIONSHIPS

The man now leading the Gophers is one who very appears to be one about building relationships. Caring about the player as much as (or more) as he cares about what he can get out of that player.

Winning, at this level, matters. But being a quality human, who makes good decisions while also being concerned about helping these young men navigate life is important. Having a face of your program who cares about building the right kind of relationships is one who is trying to build something that is sustainable.

Twitter is loaded with stories of Johnson and how much respect he has from former players, parents of recruits and other coaches. Winning will determine his fate as the Gopher’s head coach, but one thing we learned from Pitino is that there is a lot of respect for people who handle this job with class and integrity. I have confidence that we have that once again and it is a positive attribute that Johnson is bringing to the table.

TEACHING

Johnson has been given accolades both at Minnesota and at Xavier for his player development. Especially how he has handled guards. Teaching and getting his players to play the way they need to, within their specific system, seems to be a strength of his.

Not an easily quantifiable category that I may be arbitrarily putting into the positives category, but I think that teaching will be a strength of Johnson’s.

THE QUESTIONS

Now we get to the concerning parts of this hire. And the mostly come down to the fact that Johnson has never been a head coach...at any level. He is not lacking overall experience, he’s been a part of a high-major D1 program since 2012. He’s learned from Miles, Pitino and Steele at this level. Ben Jacobsen has been successful at the mid-major level with Johnson on his staff as well. But there is absolutely going to be a learning curve here.

RUNNING A PROGRAM

There is so much more on his plate now than there was yesterday. Managing your staff, being accountable for the actions of the 13 kids on your team, media responsibilities and then all of the “regular coaching things” like scouting, planning, recruiting, teaching, etc. Being a guy in the room for all of these things is very different than being THE guy running the room for ALL of these things.

Letting one area slip can be detrimental to what you are trying to build. I’d imagine that every coach who lands his first head coaching job has his head spinning for most of the first year. Now make that first job a Big Ten job in a major media market. This is not going to be easy, there will be learning curve.

BUILDING A STAFF

This is the one I am most interested to see play out. Michigan recently hired Juwan Howard, who had zero head coaching experience. And I think sneakily, one of the best things he did was hire Phil Martelli on his staff. The former St. Joe’s head coach who lead the Hawks for 24 years. A widely respected man in the profession who, undoubtedly helped Howard in his first two seasons.

Now, what will Johnson do for his staff? Will he show wisdom to hire a great coach or two who can help him in areas where he isn’t as strong?

Will he retain someone like Ed Conroy, who he worked with previously and has shown to be a very good developer of big men? Not that Conroy has to be on Johnson’s staff, I’m not calling for that, but will he compliment his strengths and hire experienced people?

I personally don’t care who he specifically hires on his staff. But I’ve always been a firm believer that many coaches who experience success at this level, often have a fantastic assistant or two who has done a lot to help get their program there. Ben Johnson will not succeed with a mediocre staff, who he hires matters.

IN GAME AND SYTEMS

Coaching a game seems like the easy part. But to be honest, I have real concern about Johnson learning on the job in the Big Ten. So many, very experienced and talented coaches in the Big Ten. Year one may (or may not) be a pretty dramatic learning experience. But this is really more about how much will he learn from year 1 to year 2.

And on top of in-game coaching, we really don’t know what Johnson’s philosophy is going to be on offense and defense. Again, after learning under Miles, Pitino and Steele; the hope would be that he has taken what he likes from each stop and knows exactly what he wants to run for his program. This is more about it just being an unknown and a question, not a concern.

Last week I posted about how I wanted a coach who has a style, a specific system. Then he teaches that system and recruits to it. Right now, we have no idea what that system will be.

CONCLUSION

The short of it is that I am very excited about the possibility of Johnson while having some legitimate questions about hiring someone with zero experience. If Ben Johnson were from Tennessee and played his college ball at Winthrop, he never would have been on the list of the top 100 candidates.

There are good reasons for this hire and it is fair to acknowledge that there are questions. I have zero doubt that Coyle was aware of these questions and had to have had them answered to his satisfaction.

I’m fully supporting this hire. The potential is there to build something special. If there is anybody who is going to be able to retain Minnesota talent at Minnesota, this is the guy to do it. Really, from a local recruiting perspective the only names you could hire who would be more equipped to lock down Minnesota recruiting rhyme with perpeschky or woy rilliams.

The local coaches wanted a guy who connects with them better. They’ve got it.

Gopher fans want a coach who will work his ass off to recruit locally and won’t be using this as a stepping stone job. You’ve got him.

Now we support this program and staff and hope they come through. People speaking with authoritative language that he will or will not succeed are guessing and will be very excited to say “I told you.” But that will be several years from now and is just a guess. Until we actually know, I’m on board and can’t wait to see how the Ben Johnson era will play out.

Welcome to Gopher Nation, Ben Johnson.