Chris Murphy, Published June 21 2013
Gophers men's hoops assistant Johnson returns homeMOORHEAD – University of Minnesota Athletic Director Norwood Teague had a bit of deja vu from his Virginia Commonwealth days when interviewing Richard Pitino for the Gophers men’s basketball job.
“When we sat down and talked, it was readily evident,” Teague said earlier this week at the Gopher Road Trip’s Moorhead stop at the Courtyard by Marriot. “You have a gut feeling. It’s kind of like the gut feeling I had when I hired Shaka Smart at VCU. You just know. It’s hard to explain.”
A topic that was hard to understand for Teague was the hype around him getting Smart to come to Minnesota.
“Everybody wrote about it,” Teague said. “We talked all the time. It wasn’t anywhere near what people were writing about. People were writing about it well before any change was made with (former Gophers basketball coach Tubby Smith) and that was unfortunate for Tubby and it was unfortunate for Shaka. There was nothing. Shaka wanted to stay at VCU, and that’s a great deal for him right now.”
Teague’s history with VCU provided a source of drama toward the vacant coaching position, but there may be a more important history that has come to fruition with newly hired 31-year-old assistant coach Ben Johnson.
Outside of playing for the Gophers from 2002-04, Johnson also led Minneapolis’ DeLaSalle High School to two state basketball championships as a player. It’s the same program that currently holds Reid Travis – ranked No. 40 in the country for ESPN’s class of 2014 – of whom Johnson has already built a relationship.
“I don’t know if it makes recruiting easier or harder,” Johnson said. “My age, being a little bit younger and not too far removed from a position they were in, does help. I’m able to relate, we can talk about stuff that’s not just basketball, so it’s good.”
With players like Travis, ESPN’s class of 2014’s best point guard Tyus Jones and best shooting guard Rashad Vaughn in the state, it adds to the recruiting pressure, but it’s nothing new for Johnson.
“We just want to recruit quality people,” Johnson said. “As a staff, we want to get the best players, best people in our program. There’s going to be pressure. That’s part of the job, that’s part of the profession. That is what it is. We are just trying to do our job every day, piece by piece, getting the right guys that fit our system and what we want to do.”
Johnson comes to the Gophers from the University of Nebraska after acting as an assistant coach under another familiar name to the area in former North Dakota State coach Tim Miles. Thanks to the similar beliefs between Miles and Pitino, it’s been an easy switch for Johnson.
“They each are unbelievable coaches, unbelievable teachers, unbelievable people,” Johnson said. “They want balance on the court and off the court with student-athletes. They want success and to recruit high-character people. They go about it a little different, but they have the same core values. For me, it was an easy transition from one to the other.”
Pitino sold Johnson on his vision, but making his alma mater into a contender was an easy sale.
“After getting a chance to sit down and talk to him, I just really believed in his vision,” Johnson said. “Obviously, being from here and playing here and having it be my alma mater, to have that supporting and backing from him got me excited. It made me want to pursue this and try to work side by side with him to try and build something special here. There’s a sense of pride everywhere you go, but there is something a little bit special to do it where you’re from and where you played at.”
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