INDIANAPOLIS – Before Ben Johnson even coaches his first game for the Gophers men's basketball team next month, he already has a plethora of fans among his Big Ten peers.
Johnson is still in the infant stages of attempting to turn around Minnesota's program, but other head coaches in the conference see similarities with him and how they got their start.
"Ben Johnson being able to do the same thing going back to his alma mater and coach, how inspiring and awesome is that?" Michigan's Juwan Howard said. "I love his energy. The school hiring the man, I saw something special in him. That's what I see in myself."
Howard joined other Big Ten coaches in welcoming Johnson, Penn State's Micah Shrewsberry and Indiana's Mike Woodson to the league during Big Ten media days at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
The 40-year-old Johnson is the youngest coach in the league, but he's not new to the conference, having been a former Gophers assistant and player. Still, it's much different as the face of the program.
Johnson followed fourth-year Gophers women's coach Lindsay Whalen to the podium Friday after both were introduced by Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren. He was unofficially sworn into the Big Ten head coaching fraternity.
"This is awesome for me," Johnson said. "I know I'm new to this, but I'm a kid who grew up watching and understand the tradition of the league. The coaches who have come through here and the players who have played here and the venues and atmosphere. I couldn't be more excited to be in the position I am."
Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg also took over his alma mater at Iowa State for five seasons before leaving to coach the Chicago Bulls. Like Johnson in Minnesota, Hoiberg understands his current fan base intimately because he grew up watching the Cornhuskers having family in Lincoln, Neb.
"Knowing the landscape of the program you took over, I certainly experienced that," said Hoiberg, who was hired in 2019. "Being a hometown guy playing there and knowing what the fan base is all about. I think there's an advantage to that. You know a lot of people in the arena who are cheering on your team. There's something special about that. So I think Ben will do a terrific job at Minnesota."
After the Gophers hired Johnson in late March, Howard called to congratulate Johnson about getting the job. They talked in person when running into each other on the recruiting trail.
"[Howard is] where I want to go as a coach and they're where we want to go as a program," Johnson said. "His personality is just infectious the way he goes about it, the way he's built it. There's a reason why Michigan [won the Big Ten title last season]. … He bleeds it. That's a lot where we're similar. We both have an unbelievable passion for our university."
Northwestern's Chris Collins and Johnson crossed paths this summer as well. Collins felt like he was looking in the mirror. He also took over a Big Ten program after being hired as an assistant with no head coaching experience in 2013.
"We were Power Five assistants where our first gig was like 'Welcome to the big boys,'" Collins said. "I tried to just give him a few nuggets about what it was like for me. Maybe things to really focus on. Because you can feel overwhelmed at times with your first head coaching job. There's so much thrown on your plate."
Johnson was still a player when Wisconsin coach Greg Gard was an assistant for Bo Ryan in the early 2000s with the Badgers. As the years passed and Johnson established himself in the assistant coaching ranks, Gard considered making him part of his staff.
Fellow Big Ten coaches know Johnson has been preparing himself to lead his own program for some time.
"It's always great to see people who have invested their life into the profession get rewarded," Gard said. "For him to come back to his alma mater and come back to Minnesota is a great accomplishment for him, but he's earned that opportunity. He's always done things the right way."