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In recovering Minnesota, a new men’s basketball coach offers a vision of change

Minnesota men’s basketball coach Ben Johnson addresses the media in March at his introductory news conference. (Jim Mone/AP)

In his healing hometown, Ben Johnson dreams anew. He’s a 40-year-old version of the south Minneapolis boy who pedaled through the city on his bicycle, searching for a good basketball run. He’s a college coach now, a head coach for the first time at Minnesota, his beloved alma mater. He’s trying to express, to an outsider, what that means.

“It’s almost like I’m living my childhood at this stage,” Johnson said during a recent interview. “I like being from here, from Minneapolis. I want to show the country what we look like at our best by being an example for our community, our state. By winning and being able to create change. What’s cooler than that?

“The timing was right for me to get this job in a lot of ways. And I get that. Another time, I might not be sitting here talking to you.”

Johnson, who was hired in March to replace Richard Pitino, is just a coach hoping to re-energize the Golden Gophers. But he symbolizes something greater as a Black man who sought to come home and inspire a city still in a post-George Floyd state of recovery. His return is not an act of goodwill but rather an essential step in his burgeoning career. His vision of success always included leading Minnesota. Despair did not change that; it made the dream more important.

What’s up with Minneapolis? What’s wrong with your city? Friends and colleagues have asked Johnson those questions a troubling number of times during this decade of national tension over excessive police force and the lethal disregard of Black lives. Minneapolis has endured recurring status as an epicenter of the mistreatment. The city did not invent such cruelty, but natives have had to live with the shame while also mourning the lives lost. Johnson provides high-profile proof that Minneapolis — and every other city struck by tragedy — should not be defined by its lowest moments.

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Minneapolis still houses dreamers. Minnesota remains a men’s basketball program capable of sustaining a higher level of success. To Johnson, those ideas do not represent a challenge. Instead, they fuel his passion.

“Everywhere you go, unfortunately, this stuff has happened or continues to happen,” Johnson said of police brutality and systemic racism. “It became national attention here, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think social injustice is not all across this country. What we can do is change the city, and we can work to correct it. In my own way, I’m ready to do that and prove that. I’m not going to shy away from the impact we can have. I understand what this position means and what it can do. If I can create a vision and a dream for young people, I want to do that. People look at sports for a break, but they also look for answers in the way we treat each other, trust each other, play for each other, the way we compete. We want to be an example of that kind of character.”

Johnson is living his childhood as an adult. He maintains a youthful reverence for home. He doesn’t need it to be perfect. He cherishes the familiarity. He remembers the older local stars, such as Khalid El-Amin, he idolized. His mind wanders back to playing youth sports throughout a nurturing community. He thinks about his days as a football and hoops star at DeLaSalle High.

The DeLaSalle campus is about five minutes from the university. Johnson helped coach Dave Thorson, who led the Islanders for 23 seasons, win the first two of his nine state titles, in 1998 and 1999. Thorson recalls Johnson making seven game-winning shots. Johnson was known as a scoring guard, but Thorson thought of him more as a winner, thinker and leader. After accepting the Minnesota job, Johnson hired his former coach and reunited with his mentor.

“In my mind, this is where he sees that he can have the greatest impact,” said Thorson, who was an assistant at Colorado State and Drake before he joined Johnson. “This is where he wants to be. This is where his heart is. He understands he’s in a position where he can help forge and mold a program this city can be proud of. His vision is a program that’s representative of all the good things about being a Minnesotan.”

First, Johnson must win. That has been a difficult task at this school in recent years. In 1999, an academic scandal ended the Clem Haskins era. In 22 seasons since, the Golden Gophers have been to the NCAA tournament just six times. Four of those trips included first-round exits. They hired big names: Dan Monson left Gonzaga to replace Haskins. Tubby Smith left Kentucky to replace Monson. Pitino, the son of a Hall of Fame coach, replaced Smith. But they combined to finish above .500 in the Big Ten only three times.

Johnson is a departure from the model of hiring a well-known sitting coach. His name doesn’t ring out nationally, but Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle hired a connected recruiter and inquisitive basketball mind who always finds a way home.

Out of high school, he went to Northwestern before transferring to Minnesota to finish his college career. He returned as an assistant from 2013 to 2018 before leaving for Xavier to develop under Coach Travis Steele. Now Johnson hopes to turn 16 years of coaching experience at six schools into a dream situation.

Coyle is positioning the athletics department for this new day in college sports, a period in which athletes are free to transfer once without sitting out, in which fresher methods of coaching and leadership are paramount. Minnesota’s understanding of this shift is apparent in three of its recent high-profile coaching hires. Johnson, football coach P.J. Fleck and women’s basketball coach Lindsay Whalen are all young coaches born in the early 1980s who balance being taskmasters with relationship-based approaches to teaching.

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Johnson and Whalen happen to be alumni and Minnesotans. The programs mean that much more to them. Johnson points to three Big Ten rivals as prototypes: Tom Izzo at Michigan State, Matt Painter at Purdue and Juwan Howard at Michigan. To those coaches, the programs are personal. Izzo and Painter have the longevity and identity that Johnson seeks to establish. Howard models the passion and possibility for a new generation of coaches.

“We all have to change with the times,” Johnson said. “I do have some old school in me, but I want to be able to do this for a long time. I have to adapt and understand and realize the time, the era. The way I was coached, you can’t do that anymore. You have to adapt, but you never allow for any give with your culture. That’s the key. Sell your vision and explain the why. The kids will do a lot, but if you can’t explain the why, good luck. Whatever I’ve got to do to help them process what we’re teaching, well, that’s what I’ve got to do.”

Thorson remembers leaving a recent visit with a former Minnesota player, who represented the program about 30 years ago, to whom Johnson explained his vision. The player told Thorson, “He just gets it.”

Throughout the Minneapolis basketball community, there’s a similar feeling of hope about the new coach. He’s not the next big-name “savior.” He’s one of them.

He’s healing with them. He’s dreaming with them.

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