Nobody likes the “one of us” angle in sports more than Minnesota sports fans. So Mark Coyle made a lot of dreams come true on Monday when he hired former Minneapolis basketball standout, Ben Johnson, as the next head basketball coach at the University of Minnesota.
Johnson, 40-yrs-old, graduated from DeLaSalle High School before starting his collegiate playing career at Northwestern. After two seasons in Evanston (both of which he averaged double-figure points), he transferred to his hometown Gophers. Ben redshirted his first season back in town before captaining Minnesota for his final two years of eligibility (’03-’04).
That wasn’t his final stint in Dinkytown, however. Johnson sat on Richard Pitino’s bench for five years as an assistant (’13-’18) before being hired away by Xavier. During his decade+ as a collegiate assistant, Ben has become known as an elite recruiter.
In Minnesota, he landed Coffey, Oturu, Jarvis Johnson, Jarvis Omersa, Kalscheur and Murphy. He’s clearly played a prominent role over the last few years in recruiting for Xavier too, as you can see from this graph via Daniel House (GophersGuru.com).
— Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL) March 22, 2021
“One of Us” status only goes so far..
But owning the “one of us” title doesn’t grant you immunity from criticism. Ben found that out very quickly after being hired on Monday, and for good reason. He’s brand new to head coaching. Many Minnesota Gophers fans wanted to see a more experienced hire after Pitino. Someone who’s been there and done that already. Someone like Brian Dutcher (San Diego State), if Coyle wanted to play the hire safe. Or Eric Musselman (Arkansas), if Coyle wanted to open up the pocket books on a new era of basketball expectations.
Instead, we got a homegrown kid who checks a lot of boxes for alumni, fans and local media. First and foremost, Ben Johnson is an elite recruiter who works his ass off and has VERY DEEP connections in the local high school community. He also becomes the first black head coach (out of ten) that Mark Coyle has hired at the University of Minnesota, which was made a focus during this hire. If successful, Johnson could be the homerun basketball hire of a lifetime for Coyle and the University of Minnesota. If it fails, then retrospect will shine an ugly light on this entire Pitino/Johnson saga.
But this story shouldn’t take all that long to play out. Ben Johnson has a unique opportunity to be successful very early on in his Minnesota tenure. Let’s chat about expectations over the next calendar year.
Expectation I: Assemble Elite Staff
Ben Johnson is the youngest coach in the Big Ten conference and this is his first head coaching job. He will need assistant coaches who have a bevy of experience and a thirst like his to land high-end recruits. The rumors are already flying on who will sit next to Ben on the Minnesota Gopher bench. Johnson has coached under guys like Tim Miles (who has Big Ten head coaching experience and is currently unemployed) and he played for Dave Thorson (Colorado St. Assistant), at DeLaSalle. Dave and Ben are both known as two of the best Minnesota high school basketball recruiters in the country. Current Gopher assistant, Ed Conroy, has also expressed his interest in staying on the Gopher staff. He coached with Johnson when they were both assistants under Pitino.
Filling the bench with the right assistants is a BIG DEAL and will go a long way in helping a young and inexperienced head coach with a lot on his plate.
Expectation II: Close Borders…. NOW
Here is where Ben’s expectations as Minnesota Gophers head coach start. He needs to prove right away that he can do exactly what he was brought here to do. He needs to use his connections and recruiting acumen to close the recruiting borders on the state of Minnesota and he needs to do it now. The transfer portal is thick with Minnesota natives who have ties to Johnson and, as previously discussed, he’s deeply woven into the structure of the 2022 Minnesota high school recruiting class…. which is phenom-status in star power.
He needs to land players from both, not only to be successful in 2021-22, but to show that he can do what he was brought here to do going forward. Ryan James of GopherIllustrated.com, who is more plugged into the local high school recruiting scene than anyone in town, will get you excited with this blog about the Minnesota high school recruiting expectations for Ben Johnson
Look at this 2022 local class 👀🤫 pic.twitter.com/RLL7w2gQZk— Minnesota Sports Fan (@realmnsportsfan) March 22, 2021
Contacting Recruits. Tre Holloman. Camden Heide. Prince Aligbe. Braeden Carrington. Joe Hurlburt. Tamin Lipsey. Elvis Nnaji. Ahjany Lee. Eli King. Demarion Watson. Taison Chatman. These are 11 local recruits that have been offered by Minnesota and most of them are just getting their recruitments started (the 2022s are still just starting recruitments because of the restrictions on recruiting). Johnson will have the chance to instantly reach out to them and try and bring three, four, or five of these players to Williams Arena.Ryan James – GopherIllustrated.com (247Sports)
Expectation III: Win… Immediately?
At the end of the day, winning is all that matters. You have to win games if you want to retain your job as a head coach in major college basketball. Meeting expectations I and II, however, will go a long way in helping expectation III come to fruition. Talent wins, especially in basketball. If Johnson can run a tight ship and keep the best talent in Minnesota to stay home then winning will become a lot easier.
And with a wide open transfer portal to help rebuild faster and huge expectations to land some of Minnesota’s best 2022 recruits, nobody is going to listen to “year 0” talk like they did with PJ Fleck. There aren’t 100 people on a basketball roster. Bringing “three, four or five of these players to Williams Arena” would completely flip the outlook of this basketball team and the University of Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball program.
Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan