Patience is a funny concept in sports, where careers are short, injuries loom, firings occur with numbing regularity and every team in every league is selling the snake oil of imminent excitement.

Hear the word "patience" from a coach, and the mind immediately translates it into "I've run out of excuses."

The Gophers basketball teams open their regular seasons on Tuesday at Williams Arena. Both have reason to plead for patience, and they might provide two instances of "patience" being used properly.

One team will openly beg for it. One might be ready to make it pay off.

Lindsay Whalen is perhaps Minnesota's greatest athlete. She is, at least, the state's grandest winner. She made the Gophers unexpected winners before leading the Lynx to four WNBA titles.

Ben Johnson won two state championships at DeLaSalle, played for the Gophers, then followed a much more familiar path for a college coach. He worked like mad, becoming a fixture in gyms around Minnesota and the basketball world, shaking hands and slapping sweaty backs.

Both are Gophers alums. Both received their first head coaching jobs, despite relatively thin résumés, from the University of Minnesota. Both are charged with improving in-state recruiting in an underrated basketball hotbed. Both are young people with tough jobs.

Whalen is 39. Johnson is 40. They have waded into one of the country's toughest basketball conferences. If Whalen starts winning this year, she will be, in a way, justifying the hiring of Johnson.

And Whalen might be ready to start winning.

Her old coach, Lynx boss Cheryl Reeve, has been saying for months that basketball fans should "speak into existence" Whalen's Gophers making it to the Final Four, which will be held in Minneapolis this spring.

Even if Whalen doesn't get that far this year, those close to her have sensed increasing confidence from her that her program is on the right track, that national prominence might be around the corner.

Remember, the last Gophers Final Four team was led by an unknown recruit from Hutchinson who accepted a scholarship offer from Minnesota because she didn't have any other good options.

Whalen was an underappreciated Minnesota high school player. Whalen the coach might have the ability to recruit well nationally and still find the next Whalen lurking in Minnesota's small towns.

Of course, it's easy to be patient with Whalen. Her résumé is exceeded only by her character. She's also as down-to-earth and funny as any great athlete you'll ever meet.

Johnson faces a tougher battle with public perception. If he doesn't win in his first two or three years, fans of the men's team are less likely to be patient. When the women's team doesn't win, a relative lack of media scrutiny can be a blessing. The men won't be able to hide.

But Johnson should receive the same benefit of doubt as Whalen. He was hired because of his work ethic, personality and connections. None of those characteristics mean he'll beat Michigan in basketball, at least not right away.

If Johnson succeeds, he will succeed because he painstakingly builds recruiting relationships that could pay off four or six years from now.

Will the university and the fan base be willing to wait that long for the possibility of success? I doubt it.

They should. Remember, when the disgraced Norwood Teague fired Tubby Smith, he thought he could land the next great coach and turn Minnesota into a basketball powerhouse.

He settled for Richard Pitino, who wasn't even on his list until he ran out of viable candidates. Pitino was not qualified to be a Big Ten coach.

Then Pitino came to Minnesota, underestimated Minnesota's provincialism, and failed to recruit well in the state, which eventually doomed him.

Johnson won't make that mistake. There is no doubt that Johnson and his wingman, Dave Thorson, will incessantly scour the craggy corners of Minnesota for quality players.

Can Johnson win? We won't know for years. But if Whalen wins, the blueprint will look promising.