Minnesota Golden Gophers’ Ben Johnson makes retaining talent in the state a priority

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Minnesota Golden Gophers hire Ben Johnson as men's basketball coach


MINNEAPOLIS – Ben Johnson arrived at Minnesota athletic director Mark Coyle, already dressed for the job he was there for an interview.
Johnson wore a Gophers sweater, which made a good first impression. His first job as the head coach of the men’s basketball team will be to persuade more Minnesota kids to wear this brown and gold.

“We have great high school coaches, great AAU coaches and kids who have a great feel and know how to play basketball, so we have to do our job within the state to keep these guys. at home, ”said Johnson, who spoke at a social distancing press conference at the team’s training ground on Tuesday, two days after meeting with Coyle and university president Joan Gabel to present his vision of the program as a player and assistant.

Johnson, 40, grew up in Minneapolis, played for Central DeLaSalle High School and spent two seasons at Northwestern before moving to the Gophers in 2001. He was on Richard Pitino’s staff for five years. He left for Xavier, where he spent the last three seasons.

When Pitino was fired last week with a 54-96 record in the Big Ten game, Johnson quickly found himself on Coyle’s short list of potential replacements despite never being a head coach before.

“Every kid in the state, just like me, must be looking forward to playing at Williams Arena someday. They must be eager to try and become a Gopher and build that energy and that excitement, ”Johnson said.

In five years in his role, Coyle has grown impatient with the program’s lack of dynamism at a time when the state’s high school talent has never been higher.

Of course, the best local recruits went to destination programs like Duke or Gonzaga. Still, Colorado (McKinley Wright IV), Texas (Jericho Sims) and Wisconsin (Brad Davison and Nate Reuvers) were among the teams in this season’s NCAA tournament with notable seniors from Minnesota.

“We are looking around the area and the number of children who are not here. We’re going to get them here, ”said Coyle, who also had Brian Dutcher (San Diego State), Craig Smith (Utah State), Dennis Gates (Cleveland State) and Ben Jacobson (Northern Iowa) among others on his radar.

Pitino had key players in the state, of course. Amir Coffey and Daniel Oturu now play for the Los Angeles Clippers in the NBA, and Johnson was a Primary reason why they chose to stay at home. Another local player is shooting guard Gabe Kalscheur, the current team’s best defender.

Along with the Musketeers, Johnson has also helped head coach Travis Steele sign back-to-back top 30 recruiting classes over the past two years.

“I’m not worried about the game stuff,” Coyle said. “He knows how” X “and” O “with anyone. He will learn how to do the timeouts. He will surround himself with a wonderful staff. ”

Johnson, who has an annual base salary of $ 1.95 million and a five-year contract, was patient when asked what he thought would be his biggest initial challenge. He named former Nebraska coach Tim Miles, Jacobson, Steele, Pitino among his many mentors. He then focused on Michigan State’s Tom Izzo (26 seasons) and Purdue’s Matt Painter (16 seasons) as role models of identity and stability.

“You can tell that to the Purdue players and the Michigan State players. This will be our goal. I want our fans to say, “He’s a guy from Minnesota,” “Johnson said. “We are very proud of our condition and our program, and we will not fail. ”

Johnson is also joining the sports department at a time when all other Gophers sports head coaches are white. In a report released two weeks ago by the Star Tribune, Minnesota was found to be the only current Big Ten institution without a school president, athletic director or head coach of color.

Historically, the Gophers hoops have been among the Big Ten’s leaders in this area. Since Wisconsin made Bill Cofield the first black men’s basketball coach in the conference in 1976, Michigan (Juwan Howard, Tommy Amaker and Brian Ellerbe) and Minnesota (Johnson, Tubby Smith and Clem Haskins) have been the only programs who have had more than two.

Rutgers has had three black head coaches during that time, with Eddie Jordan the most recent, but he’s only been in the Big Ten since 2014. Four teams have never had one. Excluding interim substitutes, Johnson’s first year will mark the Gophers’ 22nd place with the Black leadership in the 46 seasons since Cofield’s historic hiring. The Wolverines will be next with 13.

“Guys like me haven’t had this opportunity in the past. It’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? Our leaders stepped up and provided me with this platform. Now it’s my job to do my best, and hopefully I can open the doors for the next guy, ”Johnson said. “I have a lot of friends who are very competent coaches. I was fortunate that a lot of things have come into place to put me in this position today, and it makes me very humble, and I realize it. There are many things. guys who could be here. I understand. I don’t think I’m a guy who thinks I have all the answers, but I know I’m the right guy for the job. ”



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