The University of Minnesota hired Ben Johnson as its new men's basketball coach Monday, tapping his roots as a homegrown former Gophers captain and assistant coach who is getting his first head coaching opportunity at any level.
Johnson, 40, a Minneapolis native who spent the previous three seasons as a Xavier assistant coach, agreed to a five-year deal with the Gophers that will pay him $1.95 million per season, pending Board of Regents approval.
"The University of Minnesota is such a special place and has impacted me in immeasurable ways on and off the court," Johnson said in a statement. "I am ready to get to work."
The hiring of Johnson gives the university its first person of color in a head coaching role since 2013, when the Gophers fired Tubby Smith and replaced him with Richard Pitino, whom they fired last week. Before hiring Johnson, Minnesota was the only Big Ten school without a person of color in the role of president, athletic director or head coach.
"Athletics is such an inviting 'front porch' for so much of the great work we do here at the University," U President Joan Gabel said in a statement. "Few programs are more visible or closely followed than Gopher men's basketball.
"To have someone like Ben Johnson leading this program — an ambassador for our University who grew up here, went to school here and knows what the University is all about — is tremendous, for our basketball program and our institution."
According to people familiar with their search, the Gophers explored options such as Utah's Craig Smith, San Diego State's Brian Dutcher, Northern Iowa's Ben Jacobson and Cleveland State's Dennis Gates, among others. But Johnson persuaded his alma mater to gamble on a rookie coach because of his passion for Minnesota and strength as a local recruiter.
Johnson starred at DeLaSalle High School two decades ago and played two seasons at Northwestern before returning home and becoming a captain for the Gophers. He has strong Minnesota ties and relationships with the local high school basketball scene from his time working as an assistant under Pitino from 2013 to 2018.
When Johnson left for Xavier, Amir Coffey, one of the Gophers' top players at the time, considered transferring.
"If Ben wasn't at the University of Minnesota, Amir would've went somewhere else," said Coffey's father, Richard. "We were really, really sad to see Ben go."
Now, Johnson will try to make Minnesota's top in-state prospects — the future Coffeys — feel comfortable and proud to stay home, too.
"My goal for Ben when he came here was to grow and to be ready to become a successful head coach," Xavier coach Travis Steele said. "Ben was vital here, whether it was in recruiting, player development and coaching. He's terrific. He's a superstar. I'm so ecstatic for him. It's his dream job."
Steele said when he hired Johnson away from Pitino's staff in 2018, "it was really hard for him, because he bleeds maroon and gold."
“If anyone is going to keep the kids at home, it's going to be Ben. He has the respect of coaches in the area. He can paint that picture of staying home, because he did it the hard way to come back.”
That same year, Johnson helped Pitino set the groundwork for the high-profile all-Minnesota recruiting class of Daniel Oturu, Gabe Kalscheur and Jarvis Omersa.
"He's someone who played a huge role in me going to the U," said Oturu, who now plays for the Los Angeles Clippers with Coffey. "He's someone who builds relationships and is really good with people. I'm happy he gets the opportunity."
At 40, Johnson is the youngest head coach in the Big Ten, just like Pitino, 38, who was dismissed last week coming off a 14-15 season. One day after Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle made that move, Pitino accepted the head coaching job at New Mexico.
After the Gophers reached the NCAA tournament in 2017, Pitino landed the Oturu-led 2018 recruiting class. But he signed just three of 22 local players offered in the next three classes, which occurred after Johnson's departure to Xavier.
There have been 10 McDonald's All-Americans from Minnesota since 2013, but Pitino was unable to land any of them, including Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs and Marquette's Dawson Garcia last year. Kendall Brown, a five-star recruit, already signed with Baylor this year. Treyton Thompson is committed to the Gophers, but Chet Holmgren, the nation's No. 1 player in the 2021 class, is still uncommitted.
Coyle, whose other coaching hires include P.J. Fleck, Lindsay Whalen and Bob Motzko, understood the importance of recruiting when finding someone to turn around the Gophers men's hoops program. "There is no doubt that you've got to be able to recruit your in-state talent," Coyle said after firing Pitino last week. "We have wonderful talent here. … We want to find people that can recruit."
Coyle emphasized picking from a diverse candidate pool and "casting a wide net." Johnson's the second assistant and person of color hired to fill a Big Ten opening this month, including Penn State hiring Purdue assistant Micah Shrewsberry.
The initial questions about Johnson lacking head-coaching experience should be overshadowed by his understanding of Minnesota recruiting, said Dan Monson, who coached Johnson for two seasons with the Gophers.
"If anyone is going to keep the kids at home, it's going to be Ben," Monson said. "He has the respect of coaches in the area. He can paint that picture of staying home, because he did it the hard way to come back."