Meet new Gophers basketball coach Ben Johnson

Johnson brings a Minnesotan-led initiative to try and turn around the Gophers’ program.

Williams Arena as seen on Monday, June 17, 2019.

Tony Saunders

Williams Arena as seen on Monday, June 17, 2019.

AJ Condon

The University of Minnesota athletics department hired a new and energetic head coach Monday, who believes the Gophers men’s basketball program is a hidden gem just waiting for a jumpstart. Minnesota native Ben Johnson is excited to be home and ready for the opportunity in front of him as the newly appointed head coach for the Gophers.

“This is a special day for me. I couldn’t be more excited to come home and to be home, and this is home. When you talk about a dream opportunity and a job — this is it, I’ve hit it,” Johnson said at his introductory press conference, which was held in person with a small group of media members — the only non-virtual press conference since the pandemic began.

The state of Minnesota is familiar with Johnson, who has spent much of his time with the Gophers. Johnson transferred to Minnesota after playing two seasons with Northwestern. He finished his playing career as a two-time captain before graduating in 2005. After multiple assistant coaching positions, Johnson returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach under former Gophers head coach Richard Pitino from 2013-18.

When the phone rang about the job at Minnesota and Johnson answered the phone, he didn’t entirely know where the phone call was going to go. Fortunately, Johnson was welcomed with good news and his new life was ready to start.

“Thankfully, Mark [Coyle] and his staff had confidence in me and I’m here today and I couldn’t be more excited,” Johnson said.

Johnson brings a unique element to this Minnesota team, a team that has seen plenty of top in-state recruits defer to other programs. Johnson is touted as an excellent recruiter, he’s a personable guy and he has a mission to turn this program around.

After joining Xavier as an assistant coach in 2018, Johnson helped lead the Musketeers to back-to-back top-30 recruiting classes in 2019 and 2020. Johnson also played a big hand in keeping former Gophers Amir Coffey and Daniel Oturu in state as well as current junior guard Gabe Kalscheur.

“Obviously, first and foremost, is to be able to do a good job within the state,” Johnson said of the importance of recruiting. “You’ve seen, over time, that we have a lot of talented players that understand how to play. We got to do our job, within the state, to keep those guys home.”

The 2022 class features three four-star recruits, including two in the top-100 in the nation, according to 247Sports. Though the upcoming season is Johnson’s primary focus, the upcoming recruiting class has plenty of talent for Johnson to make an early splash.

Johnson has constantly proved his ability to recruit and that it is going to be a top priority in his stint with Minnesota. In fact, Johnson didn’t waste any time in recruiting after receiving the job.

After being asked about when his first recruiting phone call would be, Johnson chuckled and replied, “We’ve already made those.” He said as soon as his plane landed in Minnesota and he got reception, he started making calls.

He knows that recruiting isn’t a one-person job. Even when he was able to keep Coffey, Oturu and Kalscheur in state, he didn’t do it alone. Johnson is going to lean on high school and AAU coaches and make them feel like they are a part of this program and school.

The Gophers have a lot of facilities that Johnson believes are a big plus for trying to bring in talent. Johnson grew up loving Minnesota and watching the Maroon and Gold play in Williams Arena. The atmosphere that the stadium brings in is one of a kind.

“It’s historic. There’s a lot of good players that have played on that court and that it’s special. There’s a lot of magic still in there that we’re going to dig out,” Johnson said of the Barn.

Johnson has already met the team and even quoted Gophers’ football head coach P.J. Fleck when speaking about his players. He knows a change in head coach is never an easy transition. Though some players have already entered the transfer portal, Johnson hopes he is able to keep the rest of the team at Minnesota and even convince those that entered the portal to reconsider.

“I’m gonna steal a line from P.J., ‘They didn’t choose me, I chose them,’” Johnson said. “I’ve been in their position, and it’s tough. Especially when you come off a season where things didn’t go your way.”

University athletics director Mark Coyle is excited about what Johnson can bring to this team and this program. He and his staff took a lot of time and effort into finding the best candidate for Minnesota, and they think Johnson is the right guy for the job.

It also helped Johnson’s case when he showed up for his interview and was able to grab the attention of Coyle and President Joan Gabel.

“First off, he was very smart, he wore a Gopher polo which caught our attention right away, so great move on that side,” Coyle joked. “He laid out a very clear vision that we were going to compete at the highest level. His plan of recruiting the right type of kid, recruiting the in-state kid … He laid that out very clearly.”