See more of the story

On a cool and cloudy fall morning, Ben Johnson stands about the scattered leaves on the front lawn of his two-story Minnetonka house. His right arm rises above his head. A blue rubber ball flies through the air.

Bruce, a 100-pound Rottweiler, stares from the sidewalk. His silent protest is a sign that he knows his best friend is about to leave for the day.

"Come on, get your ball, get your ball," Johnson says in a deep-voiced plea.

Three years ago, Johnson adopted his furry friend while working as a Gophers men's basketball assistant under Richard Pitino. Now, after a stint at Xavier, Johnson is back in his home state again, 40 and single, getting ready to make his head coaching debut for Minnesota on Tuesday.

The Big Ten's youngest head coach is also the conference's only bachelor. Johnson's life is still basically basketball and Bruce.

"I don't have kids," Johnson says. "It's just me, this guy, and work right now."

Sometimes the work stretches long past midnight, with Johnson cozy and content with his dog, his laptop and his thoughts on how to turn around the program.

"Almost every night now, I've been watching practice film," Johnson says. "He just sits right next to me … Just cool and calm."

Building his alma mater from the ground up keeps the rookie coach's thoughts churning, especially since the Gophers have had only three winning Big Ten seasons in the past 20 years.

“I really believe in what we're going to stand for and what we are. You don't want to stray from that even during times of adversity.”
Ben Johnson

The cool and confident demeanor Johnson has exuded since he was a freshman at DeLaSalle High School has never been as important as it is now. The Gophers, who have undergone a startling roster overhaul since last season, are picked to finish last in the Big Ten.

"You got to stick to your guns and stay the course," Johnson says. "Get through the process. Once you do, then that's when you can really win."

Gophers men’s basketball coach Ben Johnson with Bruce, his 100-pound Rottweiler and late night film study partner.
Gophers men’s basketball coach Ben Johnson with Bruce, his 100-pound Rottweiler and late night film study partner.

Marcus Fuller, Star Tribune

Recruit, recruit, recruit

After pulling into his parking spot behind the U's Athletes Village, Johnson grabs a Manila folder from the front seat of his blue Chevrolet Suburban and tucks some Gophers gear under his arm.

His cellphone starts to buzz. Fittingly, it sounds like a dog whistle, and this is a call Johnson would take 24/7.

It's never too early to respond to recruiting calls, especially since his first Gophers roster is built mostly with transfers, temporary stand-ins whose roster spots will open again soon. Pitino's firing in March prompted a program-record 10 players to enter the portal in one offseason, and there could be as many as eight new players to add by next season.

Texting while he rides an elevator, Johnson exits on the men's basketball floor and moves past a series of strategically placed Gophers murals. If this were a recruiting visit, the prospect and his family would immediately see the large pictures of Minnesota natives Daniel Oturu and Amir Coffey, two players Johnson recruited to the Gophers as Pitino's assistant.

A sign with two digital counters is displayed prominently, next to those murals, tracking the number of NBA players (50) and draft picks (54) who have come through the program. Before Oturu, the Gophers hadn't had a player picked in the NBA draft since Kris Humphries in 2004. Humphries was Johnson's teammate that year.

"I had them put [the digital counters] up in June," Johnson says. "When we bring recruits in here, the whole point is to see this and that [Oturu and Coffey] were two in-state guys, top-100 players who reached their NBA dreams. Just to show them that the blueprint works. Hopefully, we can add names and pictures when there are more."

The Gophers coaching staff soon gathers in the recruiting room, just as they do to start every morning. They have already landed three in-state 2022 commitments — Pharrel Payne, Joshua Ola-Joseph and Braeden Carrington — and are building relationships with a growing list of players in the Class of 2023.

Pitino drew heavy criticism for not recruiting Minnesota's top prospects enough, but Johnson is all-in on bringing in local talent and more.

"Obviously, I got to do my job [recruiting] as a head coach. My staff has to do their job as assistant coaches," Johnson says. "But if the players in your locker room are bought in and selling that vision, that's more powerful than anything I'm going to do. … That's when you build that family."

Johnson walked through the University of Minnesota Athletes Village on the way to his office.
Johnson walked through the University of Minnesota Athletes Village on the way to his office.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Family matters

Scroll through the other 13 Big Ten head coaches' profiles and each touts a spouse and children. Then there's Johnson — single, but hardly alone.

His parents, Hal and Katie, raised Ben and his younger sisters Mali and Clare in south Minneapolis, sending all three kids to DeLaSalle.

Hal was the first development director at Holy Angels. Katie was a longtime media specialist at Holy Angels before finishing her career at Apple Valley. They still run a consulting business for local churches and taught their children to be strong in their faith.

Johnson was grateful to reunite with his whole family back in Minnesota, but friends and relatives have mostly given him space to keep his home life pretty simple with Bruce. He is busy strengthening the bonds within the Gophers program.

"It is about family," Johnson says. "It's about the tradition of the program and playing for the people who came before you. Trying to build on that."

The words "Committed to Family" are written on the wall outside the head coach's office along with signatures of past and present Gophers. There's even a team hashtag: "#C2F."

"Every time the players come up here to do film with me or one of the coaches, this is just like a constant reminder," Johnson added.

In a pre-practice meeting with his eight seniors, Johnson talks about team expectations and establishing a culture of family. They have picked three other principles to help forge the program's new identity: development, toughness and team.

"From a fan's point of view, they're going to have to see what Gophers basketball's about," Johnson says. "I want them to see our team from where we started to where we're going. And that we can be in games people don't think we can win. I believe we can do it."

Johnson working on X’s and O’s with assistant coaches (clockwise from bottom left) Ryan Livingston, Dave Thorson, Jason Kemp and Kelsey Steinhagen.
Johnson working on X’s and O’s with assistant coaches (clockwise from bottom left) Ryan Livingston, Dave Thorson, Jason Kemp and Kelsey Steinhagen.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

Mentor at his side

Back with his staff, Johnson hops out of his gray leather office chair, excited about the schemes he cooked up during one of his late-night sessions with Bruce. The whiteboard fills up with X's and O's, diagrams of three-quarter presses and half-court zone defenses.

Johnson, standing 6-3 with a mustache and goatee similar to that from his playing days, gets in a stance and pretends to defend video coordinator Josh Adel.

Dave Thorson, Johnson's top assistant and longtime mentor, seems to be reading his old friend's mind. "You already know what I like," Thorson says. "We got to guard the ball better."

There was a time when Thorson would bark those defensive instructions to Johnson. That was a rite of passage at DeLaSalle. They first met when Johnson was a promising eighth-grade hoops prospect after Thorson had been hired as the Islanders coach in 1994.

"I remember when he came to DeLaSalle," Thorson says. "We've had a tremendous relationship for a long time. I'm just so proud of him."

A four-year starting guard for DeLaSalle, Johnson exuded quiet confidence, poise and command under pressure. Unafraid of taking big shots and embracing a leadership role, Johnson, also a star wide receiver in football, hit seven game-winning shots in his high school hoops career and helped his team win back-to-back Class 2A state titles in 1998 and '99.

For all of Johnson's local ties, Gophers athletics director Mark Coyle took a chance by hiring a first-time head coach. He did so knowing Johnson planned to fill his staff with experienced assistants like Thorson.

"We're just really thrilled with Ben and the work he's doing with his staff," said Coyle, who also included Gophers assistants Marcus Jenkins and Jason Kemp in that praise. "It's a phenomenal job."

Thorson's experience includes four seasons as a Gophers assistant under Clem Haskins in the early 1990s. After winning nine state titles at DeLaSalle, Thorson was working as an assistant at Colorado State when Minnesota came calling again.

"I wouldn't have come back if I didn't 100 percent believe in Ben," Thorson said firmly.

Johnson added that Thorson was "needed here" to help him lead the Gophers.

"I've known him [more than] half my life," he said. "I've got the utmost trust in him."

Coaching role models

Hanging on the wall to the right of Johnson's desk are three pictures in black frames.

Johnson glances at Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, late rapper Nipsey Hussle and Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra before walking down a staircase to practice each day.

Hussle died two years ago, but Johnson still listens to him when working out on the treadmill at the Gophers facility. The lyrics hit home, but Johnson saw Hussle as a great role model for young Black men. The 33-year-old Los Angeles native was also an entrepreneur with his own clothing line and as an activist "wanted to make his community better."

"I've always been a fan of his music and him way before Nipsey went mainstream," Johnson says.

As for the other two pictures — Tomlin and Spoelstra — those are Johnson's favorite two professional coaches, and he frequently quotes them.

In Tomlin, Johnson sees a players' coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers who is razor sharp at teaching the game. "He can do it all," Johnson says.

In Spoelstra, Johnson recognizes his climb with the Miami Heat, from video coordinator to assistant and eventually to head coach of an NBA championship team. The story reminds Johnson to remain steadfast in his own journey.

"You look at the Steelers and the Heat, in my mind I want to stay on that path of that culture," Johnson says in his office. "I really believe in what we're going to stand for and what we are. You don't want to stray from that even during times of adversity."

Johnson working on X’s and O’s with assistant coaches (clockwise from bottom left) Ryan Livingston, Dave Thorson, Jason Kemp and Kelsey Steinhagen.
Johnson working on X’s and O’s with assistant coaches (clockwise from bottom left) Ryan Livingston, Dave Thorson, Jason Kemp and Kelsey Steinhagen.

Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

'Keep grinding'

Before practice, Johnson pulls the team together for a presentation. Determined to see maximum effort, the coach will award a "Gold Jersey" to the best player in practice each week. On this day, the inaugural winner is senior Payton Willis.

Johnson tells the players he expects someone to win at least 10 of the jerseys by season's end. It might take time for the concept to sink in, just as it will take awhile for them to learn their half-court defense, which resembles the Syracuse 2-3 zone.

"I'm a first-year guy, so none of these guys know it," says Johnson, who steps in to show his players what to do.

Johnson corrects and encourages in an easygoing, low-pitched tone, like a constant murmur throughout practice. Never a hint of sarcasm like his predecessor. He's not a screamer, either.

"When [Johnson] was an assistant here, he really didn't speak much," says sixth-year senior Eric Curry, the only player left from 2018, the last season Johnson was a Gophers assistant.

"He's kind of a quiet guy," Curry adds. "Now he's assertive and he's authoritative. You can just see he bleeds this school in and out. He really loves this school. He was passionate back then, but now he runs the show."

After spending the first 90 minutes on new plays, the Gophers scrimmage for 25 minutes, and the ending is spirited, with the losing side staging a big comeback. Johnson shares a slogan he picked up at DeLaSalle years ago, referring to the daily grind.

"Pretty good job of keeping our mind in it and competing all the way until the end," he says to close practice. "That was basically a one-possession game. Keep grinding."

If the unremarkable projections come true in Johnson's first season, starting Tuesday against Missouri-Kansas City, he will be up nights trying to pull the Gophers through some serious adversity.

“From a fan's point of view, they're going to have to see what Gophers basketball's about. I want them to see our team from where we started to where we're going. And that we can be in games people don't think we can win. I believe we can do it.”
Ben Johnson

With all of the roster turnover, Minnesota still has only two players who have competed at the major conference level. Johnson's ability to keep players upbeat and motivated no matter the outcome will be key.

"It's going to be a total process every day," Johnson says. "I know we're not the deepest team. I want us to have the utmost confidence and put our best foot forward."

After practice, Johnson scurries to his office to shower and get on the road. He has errands to run. And even though Bruce loves his dogsitter, he is now eagerly waiting at home. Waiting to toss the blue ball around again. Waiting to study practice film late into the night.

Win or lose this season, at least Bruce will be content.

"With his personality," Johnson says, "I just got lucky."

Maybe with this hire, the Gophers did, too.