Photo Courtesy of Steven Ryan / Getty Images
Photo Courtesy of Steven Ryan / Getty Images

Former Gopher Ben Johnson named new head coach of men’s basketball program

March 24, 2021

University of Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle happily announced on Monday, March 22 that the successor at head coach for the men’s basketball program, following the firing of Richard Pitino, would be Gopher alumni and former player, Ben Johnson.

A surprise hiring for many, Johnson most recently comes from the Xavier basketball program, where he was an assistant coach for the last three years. Before that, he was actually on the Gophers’ coaching staff for five years from 2013 to 2018, as an assistant coach and head recruiter for Richard Pitino. During these years, Johnson was the key cog in landing in-state recruits such as Jordan Murphy, Amir Coffey, and Daniel Oturu, and being the head recruiter for the in-state players for years, Johnson can bring this skill back to the program, something that Pitino was often criticized for during his stay in Minneapolis.

But Johnson also brings a new passion and drive to the program, and in his press conference, he talked about what he is trying to instill in the players from the very first day he is in the office.

“We’re going to hit the reset button, and then we’re going to get back into the gym and get back to work. We can build skill… we’re going to have development plan into place to build their skill and confidence in taking big shots,” said Johnson in preparation for his playstyle.

We’re going to hit the reset button, and then we’re going to get back into the gym and get back to work. We can build skill… we’re going to have a development plan into place to build their skill and confidence in taking big shots,

— Johnson

Johnson describes his desired play-style as a “gritty” and “physical” style, and he mentioned that he plans on bringing the right characters to the program, ones that will fight for time on the court.

Johnson may only be 40-years-old but has a depth of experience coaching, going back 16 years now since his first job as a graduate assistant in the Dayton basketball program. Although this is his first head coaching job and some may criticize the coach early because of his lack of experience leading a team, what the 16 years of experience offer are connections and knowledge of different coaching schemes.

Johnson mentioned how he had people all across the state of Minnesota congratulating and messaging him, from players he recruited in the past, to former teammates and even AAU and NCAA coaches. So this is a very positive sign for Gopher fans; Johnson is young enough to have deep connections with players across the high school and college basketball scene in Minnesota yet has the experience needed to become a head coach.

Just in his first full day as head coach of the Gophers, Johnson has been contacting various in-state recruits for the upcoming class of 2022, according to Ryan James, co-publisher for Gopher Illustrated. Johnson has begun talks with 4-star recruit Demarion Watson (Totino-Grace), Braeden Carrington (Park Center), and 3-star Eli King (Caledonia), in attempts to get in as much talent as possible for his first full recruiting class.

Johnson has also reportedly been in contact with Chet Holmgren, the highly touted #1 recruit in the country for the 2021 class. Many believe that Gonzaga is close to having him commit however, the Gophers have remained in Holmgren’s top seven teams since June of 2020, when he first announced the selection.

As well, an unnamed and “prominent” AAU head coach in Minnesota told the Gopher Hole that, “We haven’t seen this much excitement around Gophers basketball in the AAU scene in a long time.” So although Johnson’s coaching skills are somewhat unknown, there are incredibly promising signs around his ability to recruit, and recruit in-state. Something that Gopher basketball has been starving for during the last few years under Pitino.

Minnesota basketball fans can now sit back and watch the process as Ben Johnson builds an entirely new system for Gopher basketball, one with immense promise and surprising confidence, but there is one aspect Johnson does not expect to stray from, the fans and the traditions set in historic Williams Arena.

Ben says it best, “It’s historic… you get Williams Arena rocking, there’s nothing like it. So many people around college basketball always ask me about Williams Arena. It’s a huge asset.”

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