Ben Johnson's slow and steady rise through college basketball's coaching ranks began with a long ride with Mom and Dad.
He was 24 and working as a high school assistant at his alma mater, DeLaSalle, when Dayton hired him to be a graduate assistant. The salary was just $4,000. No need for a car.
So Johnson hopped in with his father, Hal, and mother, Katie, for the 700-hundred mile drive to southwest Ohio.
"I distinctly remember them dropping him off," then-Dayton coach Brian Gregory said. "I was just so excited to have him. I had this unbelievable opportunity at Dayton to share it with someone who was entering the profession — that I knew was going to be a star one day."
Johnson's brightest moment came Monday, when he fulfilled a dream to coach the Gophers, signing a five-year contract worth $1.95 million per season. A surprising hire — it's his first head coaching job at any level — but a moment 16 years in the making for Johnson.
At Dayton, it was far from the big time, as Johnson poured himself into his job. It seems he hasn't changed much since. He is not married. Has no kids. It's all work and no play.
"I'm a pretty simple guy," Johnson, 40, told the Star Tribune. "I like to travel. I've got a dog, so I like to hang around with him, but honestly sports and basketball is what I do. … I'm kind of boring that way I guess you could say."
Maybe not boring, but singularly focused. The trip to Dayton led to several more stops as an assistant coach that groomed him to one day take the reins of his own program.
The Gophers turned to Johnson after eight up-and-down seasons with Richard Pitino, the son of a Hall of Fame coach, who landed the U job at age 30.
For Johnson, the journey to his dream job was more of an odyssey on a fast-food budget.
"I'm humbled enough to know this is hard — and I'm very fortunate," Johnson said. "I'm also confident in who I've prepared under. I'm confident in my abilities as a coach."
Coach on the floor
At 6-3 and 190 pounds, Johnson was the size of a point guard but had a scorer's mentality starring on state championship teams at DeLaSalle in the late 1990s.
In college, Johnson was known as a shooter, too, first for two years at Northwestern and then for the Gophers after he transferred back home.
Despite having enough game to pursue pro basketball overseas, Johnson realized early his path to the next level would be with a clipboard on the sidelines, not with the ball in his hands.
"Everybody when they're playing thinks they can coach," joked longtime Long Beach State coach Dan Monson, who was Johnson's coach with the Gophers. "Ben was a great leader on the court as a two-time captain for us. A lot of people can do the X's and O's, but he had the innate ability to have people follow him, a huge component in coaching."
As serious and straight-faced as Johnson carried himself on the court, he knew how to ease the tension in the room with a joke. He loved mimicking former coaches, especially Northwestern's Kevin O'Neill and his quirky sense of humor.
"I just loved how Ben could imitate him," Monson said. "He had some hilarious stories."
Monson and O'Neill influenced Johnson in college, but his high school coach, Dave Thorson, also has played a crucial mentoring role.
"Ben has always been a poised competitor," said Thorson, now an assistant coach at Colorado State. "He had laser focus on winning as a player and led the teams he played on by his dedicated effort and unwavering belief in himself and his teammates. I've seen that grow during his coaching career."
After Johnson graduated from the U in 2004, he helped out on Thorson's DeLaSalle staff for a year, hoping to see if it could lead to something bigger. It eventually did.
Gregory was looking for a promising and eager young coach to be a grad assistant at Dayton for the 2005-06 season.
"I told him this is like a master's degree in coaching," Gregory said. "Doing workouts. [Staying] on top of the guys academically. Learn how to do the video breakdowns, scouting reports. He had to be a sponge to learn everything. I knew he would be a great recruiter with his personality when the time came, but there was a lot more that this job entails."
Ready for bigger role
Johnson would finally get a set of wheels. His first full-time assistant job came at Texas-Pan American, where coach Tom Schuberth had only $78,000 to spread among three assistants.
"He was better than I even expected," Schuberth said. "I told guys he was going to be a head coach one day. He was so mature. He was genuine. The players loved him, even though he was tough on them. They trusted him."
The staff inherited a program that went 7-24, but they won 15 games in the first season and 18 games in Year 2. Schuberth promoted Johnson to his top assistant, but it wasn't enough to keep him after two years.
Johnson bounced to Northern Iowa, where he spent four years on Ben Jacobson's staff, including a magical run to the Sweet 16 in 2010. The Panthers gave Johnson his first chance to recruit and coach players from Minnesota. The connection was instant.
"He was like my liaison," former Northern Iowa and Tartan guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe said. "… Coach Johnson was business first. He was so detailed. He was always in the office working. And when he was at home, he'd text me about missing something [in the game]. But he'd also have that little corky laugh that he'd do."
No place like home
Johnson's Minnesota recruiting chops led to the Gophers hiring him away from Nebraska when Pitino replaced Tubby Smith in 2013.
Suddenly, the Gophers with Johnson were identifying more top in-state targets early. That turned into landing, among others, future NBA players Amir Coffey and Daniel Oturu.
After five seasons working for Pitino, Johnson set off on his own again, leaving his home state behind. Xavier's Travis Steele offered him a job as his top assistant in 2018.
"Xavier had just won the Big East," Johnson said. "They had just been one of the No. 1 overall seeds. … It was a way for me to learn a different style. I've always been intrigued by the Big East. It's a little different, a faster-paced style offense."
Johnson always imagined himself returning to the Big Ten, but he said Steele "let me grow as a coach."
"The amount of freedom he gave me to coach and to grow help put me in this position I am today," Johnson added.
Johnson can look back at each stop of his career so far and see lessons he'll apply now that he's running his own program.
All those experiences taught Johnson to "be who I am," most importantly. A coach that even when he was driving to Ohio with no college experience had the utmost confidence in his ability to coach.
There's nothing outwardly braggadocio about Johnson, now 17 years removed from his playing days. Yet, he believes strongly in himself — that he has what it takes to succeed at something new again. He has put in the work.
"That's gotten me to where I am right now," he said. "And I say that with full humbleness."