Scoggins: Coyle's hiring of Johnson is rebuke of Pitino's tenure

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Chip Scoggins, Star Tribune
·4 min read
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The Gophers athletic department pulled a stage, balloons and Goldy the mascot out of storage Tuesday for a news conference to formally introduce new men's basketball coach Ben Johnson. A simple fax explaining Mark Coyle's reasons for picking Johnson would have sufficed.

The whole thing can be summed up in one word: Recruiting.

Actually, two words: Instate recruiting.

Coyle's thought process in making such a high-profile hire required little effort to discern. The athletic director again showed he's willing to sacrifice experience for recruiting with this hire — a hire that is a total rebuke of Richard Pitino's tenure.

What was the biggest criticism of Pitino? That he took a detached and inconsistent approach to recruiting Minnesota despite this state's reputation as a hotbed for high school talent.

So who does Coyle pick as Pitino's replacement? His former assistant who built a favorable reputation among high school and AAU coaches as someone who devoted considerable time and effort in recruiting Minnesota kids and developing relationships.

This is a new spin on the classic management model of "hire the opposite."

"He has earned this right to be at Minnesota," Coyle said of his 40-year-old, first-time head coach.

As a department leader, Coyle shuns the spotlight and prefers saying less than more. He's not a hard guy to read, though, when he's hiring coaches. It's all about recruiting, recruiting, recruiting.

It's why he hired P.J. Fleck. It's why he hired Lindsay Whalen. And it's why he hired Ben Johnson.

Fleck attracted national buzz in building up Western Michigan, but his reputation is that of a gung-ho recruiter. Whalen had no coaching experience, but Coyle saw an opportunity to use her stature in Minnesota as a big recruiting draw. Johnson spent more time talking about recruiting than Xs-and-Os strategy at his opening presser.

See a pattern?

Coyle's years as an assistant AD at Kentucky and Syracuse shaped his management ideology on the importance of recruiting at the highest level possible.

Imagine his frustration in watching talented basketball recruits leave the state to play for other schools. Not just five-star defections such as Tyus Jones, Matthew Hurt and Jalen Suggs. Those kids were pipe dreams. But losing that next-tier talent — Dawson Garcia, McKinley Wright, Ben Carlson, Will Tschetter, etc. — clearly bothered the boss who noted that "obviously we pay attention."

"We look around our region and the number of kids that aren't here," Coyle said. "We're going to get them here."

He is betting on it. There is risk involved with this decision. Coyle chose an assistant coach over head coaches at midmajor programs who have been successful and wanted this job. If Johnson doesn't succeed, the fallout on Coyle will be intense.

"We are confident that we got the best person for Minnesota basketball to take us to the next level that this program deserves," Coyle said.

This all sounds as sweet as honey to those frustrated with the program, but the unknowns about Johnson's coaching acumen are unanswerable right now. He has never been a head coach and will be learning on the job in one of the toughest conferences in college basketball stocked with veteran coaches.

Being skeptical is understandable because hiring someone with no head coaching experience eliminates one thing that comforts people in a coaching change: Experience. A track record. A résumé that shows the new coach has done this job somewhere else, even at a lower level.

No one can guarantee how Johnson will fare as CEO of a program because he's never been in this role. That's not to say he won't succeed. It's just that we have to wait and see.

He brings the right blueprint, though. Recruiting is the lifeblood of college sports. The better the talent, the better the coach looks. Recruiting is a national pursuit, but Johnson's starting line is right here.

Minnesota is blessed with terrific high school basketball. Johnson won't convince every recruit to stay home, something that Fleck and Whalen have experienced as well.

Johnson seems to love that part of the job though, which is critical. He noted that he began making recruiting calls the moment his plane landed in Minnesota on Monday evening.

"Recruiting is nonstop," he said.

It can't even pause. Not with this program and its needs. This is why Coyle hired Johnson and brought him home.