Episode 36: Gophers turn to Ben Johnson to keep in-state talent

In this week’s episode of the “Weekly Rundown,” our staff discusses new Gophers men’s basketball coach Ben Johnson, Johnson’s introductory press conference and his recruiting aspirations in the state of Minnesota.

Nolan O'Hara and AJ Condon

NOLAN O’HARA: Hello and welcome back to another episode of the “Weekly Rundown,” presented by the Minnesota Daily. I’m your host Nolan O’Hara. We’re in the middle of March Madness and the NCAA hockey tournament is just about underway. So I kind of expected to talk about the Gophers hockey team this week, but we did have some breaking news. Athletics director Mark Coyle hired Ben Johnson to be the next coach of the Gophers basketball team.

Johnson was an assistant at Xavier and was an assistant coach under Richard Pitino here at Minnesota previously. He graduated from the U after a stint at Northwestern, he went to DeLaSalle High School, so a lot of local ties. And yesterday, Tuesday, he just had his introductory press conference. Our basketball beat reporter AJ Condon was there for that. So I wanted to have him back on the podcast to kind of break that down to discuss the Gophers latest hire and everything that happened yesterday. So it’s good to have you here. AJ, how’s it going?

AJ CONDON: Yeah, it’s going good. We talked about it pre-recording, but slow week. I’m just hoping to get through this and spring break’s right around the corner. So really excited for that.

O’HARA: I was thinking the opposite of slow week, it’s a busy week. But I am ready for spring break. I can definitely second that. To kind of jump in here, let’s start with this hire itself. You had a breakdown of potential candidates before on the Daily, you wrote that up. Ben Johnson wasn’t one of them on that break down. But can you kind of speak to what your thoughts were when they announced this hire? Was he on your radar at all? I know, you didn’t include them in there. But obviously other candidates to consider too. And you think this was kind of a surprise hire? And I guess what were your first thoughts like right off the bat? Do you think it was a good hire a bad hire kind of thoughts when they announced that Ben Johnson would take over this program?

CONDON: Yeah. So looking back at my breakdown, I was more focused on other head coaches around the league. I wasn’t really expecting Minnesota to turn to an assistant coach. But yeah, right off the bat, I thought it was a good hire. It makes tons of sense. You mentioned all his ties to the state of Minnesota. And we talked about in the last podcast about how big of a determinant that was going to be. We talked about it and in-state recruiting and how having a Minnesota tie would help that a lot. And like you said, grew up in Minnesota, attended the U, even played for the team and then even coached here later.

So he’s got tons of ties to Minnesota, and I think that’s really going to help is help us recruit in state, which we’ll get into later, but was the pretty much the main thing he talked about at the press conference. So yeah, right off the bat, I thought it was a really good hire. Mark Coyle even said during the conference, that he received a lot of texts and phone calls. And pretty much the word to sum it up from what he received was that it was a home run hire. So that was very relieving to hear from Coyle. And I think they did a really good job during this process.

O’HARA: For sure, yeah, it seems like they were all pretty excited about it at the press conference. There’s been a lot of positive feedback about it, too. And it was kind of interesting that the rare in-person press conference — I don’t think we’ve had a single one since COVID. And they had that introductory press conference in person with some local media here. Mark Coyle, Joan Gable and then Ben Johnson of course, were all there. I guess, could you just break down what that was, especially it’s the only time it’s been an in person press conference. And what was the vibe there? And what kind of were your first impressions of Johnson?

CONDON: Yeah, the in person press conference was very relieving to have. Obviously, we’re sitting in front of computers all day on Zoom for classes. So having the press conferences be always online isn’t the best. So having to change up being in person was a lot. It was it was a great experience, honestly, it was good to see just a lot of other faces that I haven’t normally seen. I’ve seen a few of the guys at basketball games and stuff. But there’s a wide variety of people there. So that was really enjoyable to be at.

Look at that Coyle and Gabel, they both seem like they put in a lot of I mean, I know they put in a lot of work, finding this replacement. And they both seem very excited, and very thrilled for Ben Johnson to be here and excited for his plans. They really do think they have the right guy for the job. And I I’m gonna back them up on that. But I think they did find the right guy. Looking at Johnson, I think he really hit this out of the park on that press conference. I know a lot of people didn’t really have the best look at it at him right as you get hired, but I think he was able to answer a lot of those doubts with that press conference. He’s very poised. He answered everything very well, went in detail, really about what his mission is being back at the school, and what he wants to do with this team. So I think he actually just hit it out of the park on Tuesday.

O’HARA: For sure, yeah. Yeah. And yeah, it seemed watching it later too, I think what there something was Coyle said, in terms of like they’re searching when reporters were asking questions, I think he was like, ‘You should have joined us right on the search.’

CONDON: I mean, the reporters were asking great questions. And yeah, Coyle joked about it, that they should bet on the search committee because they were asking those same exact questions to everyone involved. So that’s why that’s why I really do think they found the right guys is because when the press and like the search committee are on the same page on questions to ask this new coach, I think that’s a really good sign. And I think Johnson’s a great example of kind of this guy being on the on the right page with everyone else. So I think that was definitely a definitely a positive that I took away from the press conference.

O’HARA: Yeah. And looking at it, obviously I re-watched it later. But there was a very clear theme in the press conference. It was a very clear theme, that Coyle was, what Coyle was looking for. It was very clear theme, what Johnson’s goals are here, and that is keeping in-state talent here. We saw Amir Coffey and Daniel Oturu both tweet once Johnson got hired that he was kind of the reason they stayed in state. I saw Coffey’s dad tweet that he was the reason he stayed in state. And that was a big, huge theme of the press conference. If anybody was reading a story, and it’s gonna mention in state recruiting, I guess what did Johnson or Coyle kind of saying the presser about recruiting and Johnson’s vision for this team moving forward?

CONDON: Yeah. So just before I get into that, like looking at his background, he has a very impressive resume with recruiting. You mentioned Coffey, Oturu, also Gable Kalscheur, who’s obviously on the team right now. And then when he was at Xavier, for as a couple years, he led back-to-back top-30 recruiting classes while there and obviously he’s just assistant coach, but he puts a lot of work into that. And he got a lot of credit for the recruiting class he got. So obviously, it’s a big part of his style of coaching. And I think we’re definitely gonna start seeing that right away in Minnesota. I mean, he joked about, or one of the one of the reporters asked him a question like, ‘When’s that first phone call gonna come?’ And Johnson jokingly said, ‘It already happened.’ Right, as he landed and got cell phone coverage. He was on the phone, making phone calls and trying to start his recruiting. So I think that’s, that’s just a small sample of what we’re going to get, what the team is going to get with his dedication. So like you said, it’s a, recruiting is his main focus.

I think, going back to just having this been the stereotype, he talked a lot about knowing what it’s like growing up in the state of Minnesota, being a Gopher fan, knowing the energy that that the Barn has, he wants to bring that back to Minnesota, it hasn’t been there in the past few years. 2019 obviously was, was a very fun season for fans in the Barn. But he wants to bring the atmosphere of Minnesota basketball back. And that obviously starts with keeping these players in state. And there’s already a few transfers, some Minnesota transfers that that are in the transfer portal right now that I saw a tweet from Marcus Fuller that the Gophers are already in contact with Race Thompson, Jamison Battle and other names to keep up, keep an eye on to and that transfer portal.

And then looking into 2022 class, there’s a very, they have a very solid class coming up in 2022. I was looking at 247Sports, the rankings, and obviously this year is gonna be Johnson’s main focus, but no doubt in my mind, he’s already thought about that 2022 class and how can he get those Minnesota guys to stay in state, so it’s definitely gonna be his main focus is keeping those guys in state. But he’s got a lot of work to do, obviously. I mean, there’s already three players that transferred away, so he’s gonna have a different team going into next season. So he’s gonna get to work and I don’t doubt one bit that he’s got a plan behind them.

O’HARA: Yeah, I’ve seen some tweets already after Oturu was saying that Johnson was the reason he stayed in state that they’d like to keep another Cretin-Derham Hall kid in state,  obviously, Tre Holloman is going to be a big recruit coming out of the state pretty soon. And I don’t know if he’ll end up playing here for the Gophers. But I know that Ben Johnson will be trying to give him some calls.

CONDON: Definitely, definitely.

O’HARA: But yeah, looking at it, too. It’s just there’s been a lot of positive response to the hire. I know Ben at the press conference, he was saying that, he’d gotten calls and texts and you’ve seen former players, former coaches, current coaches, all congratulating him on social media or directly to him. But we discussed last week, Minnesota fans can be pretty negative, and there’s also been some negative response to him being hired. I’m gonna throw this out there just to just to shed light on how ridiculous this is, but I saw one comment on a Star Tribune article that the Gophers should have hired Beileine and brought in Johnson as an assistant coach. So clearly some fans are kind of living in a fantasy world.

But nevertheless,  there is some like valid criticisms as well, he hasn’t been a head coach, and there were a lot of mid-major head coaches who at least appeared to be interested in that in the job, if not legitimately were, and there were other candidates, you could argue were maybe more qualified than Johnson was, but at the same time, he is kind of he’s kind of an up and comer that was kind of the thought process in this hire. But the flip side of that is to is like they just hired Pitino who was the last coach who also didn’t have any coaching experience. He’s an assistant under Pitino, I guess, what are your thoughts on these kinds of criticisms? Obviously, people be critical of anything, but there are some, I guess, somewhat valid thoughts here. What would your thinking be behind that?

CONDON: Yes, I’m, that Beileine one I’m just gonna throw away because we don’t live in a perfect world. And obviously, if we some…

O’HARA: We might as well bring in Calipari now.

CONDON: Yeah, maybe he can be the assistant and Johnson can be like, the strength coach. Let’s just get them all on our staff. Why not? So yeah, I mean, there obviously are some people in every sport, every fan, every fan on that, that throw those unrealistic takes out there. So I’m just gonna ignore that one. But there definitely is some criticism that is valid. Not having any, any previous head coaching definitely hurts him a little not having that experience. But I think this is a perfect place for him to finally get some, like we’ve mentioned, he’s been in the program before under Pitino. And he was just at Xavier. So he has really good experience as an assistant coach. And you got to give him a chance. Like, like we talked about last week. Gopher fans love just like taking the blame and throwing that at someone. Give the guy a break. He just killed a press conference. Let him at least try to recruit some guys. Maybe you can reevaluate how you think about him after that. But at least wait until he has at least one season.

I know it’s very easy to throw blame and be like, ‘Yeah, he’s not he’s not fully qualified.’ But I think it’s very important that you at least give the guy a chance. Because it’s not fair to him, it’s not fair to the program to just kind of blow them off and just be like, ‘Yeah, bad hire.’ So I just say give him a break, let him work his magic, let him get these in-state recruits. Because he clearly has a mission that he wants to do. I mean, he has a good point of attack on how he’s going to do it. So I think he set up very well for himself. And there’s obviously going to be a transition period anytime when you’re going from new coaches, especially from an assistant coach, a head coach. So there’s obviously gonna be that transition period. But I think when all is said and done, we’ll look back on this hire and be like, that definitely was the right move.

O’HARA: Yeah, and looking at it, too. I mean, obviously, he’s gonna need a couple seasons to get his guys in the program to, we’re seeing these transfers already. I think give them a couple years. I think I agree with you, obviously, it seems like right now if you can recruit these Minnesota kids, and if he has as much influence, as we’ve seen former athletes from Minnesota in the program, say he does I think, I think within a couple years you can look and he can build a really solid team around in-state talent.

CONDON: Yeah, like you look at a guy like P.J. Fleck, did people give up on him after two seasons? No, he came back that I think it was his third year and led them to an 11-win season. So no one’s gonna come in and change college program in one year. And you saw what happened when you gave P.J. Fleck time. Give Ben Johnson time and let’s see what happens with this team.

O’HARA: I’m glad you brought up Fleck too because I think another thing to think about too is you look at the hires Coyle’s made since he’s been here. I mean, you have P.J. Fleck, you have Bob Motzko, you have Lindsay Whalen. You look at his hires, and you kind of have to trust his judgment as far as bringing in coaches at this point. I mean, there’s other criticisms you can throw at him. But right now, the coaches he’s brought in have all been pretty successful.

CONDON: Yeah, I mean, Lindsay Whalen obviously ran into some issues this season with team and injuries and opt-outs and transfers and stuff like that. If you look at the hockey team and Bob Motzko, he was able to turn this program around back into what I mean people know Gopher hockey to be. You look at him bringing in P.J. Fleck. And you look at that 11-win season, obviously this past season, again, there’s problems with injuries and opt-outs But yeah, I totally agree. Trust what Coyle’s doing, he’s brought in three very talented people that we just mentioned there. Who’s to say you can’t bring in a fourth?

O’HARA: For sure. Yeah, I think it’s gonna be an interesting hire. And I think Ben Johnson’s recruiting will be a big thing and that’s something, obviously they’ve emphasized and despite the criticisms we saw of him kind of on social media and such, he did nail that presser like you alluded to earlier. And I think he might actually have changed some minds the way he did speak so highly of bringing in, in-state talent. I guess what were your thoughts, kind of overall? I know, you’ve alluded to it a little bit, but he’s talking about how it’s his dream job. He really believes in the program. I guess what were your thoughts on just his kind of intro, introduction to the head coaching job here at Minnesota?

CONDON: Yes, my first thought is with these people that have criticized him, I wonder if they’re actually the ones that have watched his press conference. Because if they haven’t, I think that’s a really important thing for them to do. Because like we’ve talked about a lot, he killed the presser, and a lot of these Gopher fans obviously were mad about the in-state talent that was leaving when Pitino was here. And Johnson’s main goal is to get this in-state talent to stay here. And I really don’t understand how someone can just criticize that when we failed to have that for the past seven, eight seasons. So I think that’s a very important thing. And so these people are criticizing them go back, it’s a 25-minute presser, find some time. Watch it, listen to it, even read articles about it. I think you’ll be reassured for your time. So I know I’m really excited. I know tons of other fans are really excited for what he’s gonna bring to this program. And like you said, this is a dream job. He will give it his all I don’t have a doubt in my mind that he will not be given this at least 110%.

O’HARA: And like Pitino tweeted, was it today or the other day? He taught him everything he knows about in-state recruiting.

CONDON: Yeah, I think it was this morning or something. But yeah, he was just excited. He was just giving a tweet too Ben and just excited for him. And he had a little sarcasm at the end saying, ‘I’ve taught him everything he knows, especially the in-state recruiting,’ so I thought that was a very kind of funny like farewell to Pitino, like his last little Minnesota, I mean, who knows if it’s his last Minnesota thing, but just kind of his farewell to this Gopher team just throwing that in there I thought was pretty funny.

O’HARA: I think the Gophers need to throw New Mexico on the non-conference schedule every year. We still need a little bit more Pitino in those press conferences.

CONDON: I’ll definitely try to get on it, if that happens. I gotta be on that Zoom call if they’re still doing those for Pitino, just to hear him talk one more time.

O’HARA: For sure. But we’re probably going to be past Zoom calls come next season.

CONDON: Yeah, I mean, we talked about this before, but fans are going to be allowed to Gopher games coming up soon. So that should be very exciting and hopefully that’s kind of a change in these press conferences too. And we can get more of these in-person ones coming up.

O’HARA: For sure. Yeah, it’s been good to see everything kind of changing, moving closer and closer to normal as we go along here. Yeah, can catch Gopher baseball live and in-person.

CONDON: Yes, Seibert Field.

O’HARA: Yeah, and I guess kind of overall, do you have any final thoughts on Johnson? His first two days I guess it’s been now since he’s the head coach, and kind of expectations for like, it’s not just the season but kind of the next couple years and how it shakes out?

CONDON: Yeah, I mean, final thoughts on these first two days was that he’s just he’s already ready to go to work. We talked to the team is already made phone calls for recruiting. So I expect I don’t know how students going to be, but I expect these transfers, he’s already going to start working on them. Are those two names I mentioned earlier with Race Thompson and Jamison Battle, those are two guys that are in the transfer portal that Gopher fans should definitely keep their name on or keep their name on the radar. I bet most basketball fans in Minnesota know who those two already are. And those are two guys that Johnson could really go for, because those are two Minnesota guys that if Johnson’s really talking about this in state recruiting, those are two two guys that he could really just get off on the right foot with, with this Minnesota team.

In the next few years, I mean, we talked about giving this guy a few years no program gets turned around and one or two seasons. It’s not likely. So yeah, these first two years, probably not going to be the smoothest for Gopher basketball. But I think the I think the future’s bright for Minnesota basketball and I think Johnson hopes that he can just get this energy and get this atmosphere back in Minnesota.

O’HARA: Yeah, absolutely talking. He spoke to that about the Barn, trying to bring that back to the way it was, and it should be exciting to see if he can do that. And there might be a completely different roster this next year. We’ve seen that the last couple years even with Pitino here, who had been here for a good period of time, so I think it’s pretty likely that we’ll see a big roster change now this year.

CONDON: Yep, definitely.

O’HARA: But yeah, I think that’s all we had. AJ, appreciate you joining us some and talking about this new hire, Gophers basketball and coming in not at the usual time on short notice. So definitely appreciate that.

CONDON: Yeah. Thanks for having me. I was really excited to talk about this. So I’m actually glad we moved it up a day. I was getting a little antsy.

O’HARA: Right, exactly. I know it was just it’s happened so long ago, it’s already yesterday. So yeah, for sure. Well, thanks again for joining us.

OUTRO MUSIC PLAYS 

O’HARA: In other news: The Gophers men’s hockey team is playing in the NCAA Tournament this Saturday at 9 p.m. against Omaha. For all those interested in watching the game will be televised on ESPNU.

The Gophers baseball team just wrapped up a three-game series against Northwestern. They dropped two of the three games they played against the Wildcats at US Bank Stadium. The Gophers will be back in action this weekend in a four-game series against Nebraska.

The Gophers softball team is also back in action this week after a week off, playing a four-game series against Illinois from Friday through Sunday.

The Gophers volleyball team dropped its second match of the season on Sunday, falling in four sets to No. 1 Wisconsin. The Gophers will look to overcome some injury difficulties and match cancellations when they retake the court again on Friday and Saturday against Northwestern.

That’s all for this week. Be sure to check our website mndaily.com for more coverage and tune in again next week to get the “Weekly Rundown” on all things Gopher sports. Thanks.