After years on West Coast, Johnson finds a good fit in the Bayou
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Odds are, none of the other 41 coaching changes this offseason caused a man to weep.But LSU's naming Stanford coach Trent Johnson to replace John Brady and interim coach Butch Pierre did.
If we don't win at an elite level here, then it's on me. No excuses.
Johnson has never been one to emphasize race, not when he was the head coach at Nevada or Stanford and not at any other time in his coaching career. It's hard to find a coach who is more direct in his approach and above reproach than Johnson."Competition has no color, and Trent Johnson is based on that," 52-year-old Johnson said. "I've never been one to get caught up in political warfare. I want to be judged, paid and praised off what we do and what I do. That's more self-satisfying." And that in part explains how Johnson got to Baton Rouge after a career in the far West, from growing up in Seattle; to going to Boise State; to coaching as an assistant at Utah, Washington, Rice and Stanford; to becoming head coach in Reno and then replacing mentor Mike Montgomery at Stanford when Montgomery left for an abridged stint with the Golden State Warriors. All Johnson has done in his career is lead two programs to the Sweet 16, coach in four NCAA tournaments, recruit and coach multiple first-round NBA draft picks -- Nevada's Kirk Snyder and Stanford's Robin and Brook Lopez -- and earn respect for the disciplined, structured way he handles his coaching, his team and his daily life. "What I wanted was to be in a situation where Trent Johnson could be the head coach and have no excuses," Johnson said over dinner at a local restaurant's back room, a side effect of his newfound fame. Johnson, like his more famous colleague, LSU football coach Les Miles, can't go out for a meal in town without being approached by fans -- a change from the more hands-off mentality in Reno and Palo Alto. "If we don't win at an elite level here, then it's on me," Johnson said. "No excuses." Johnson didn't map out a departure from Stanford a season ago. That wasn't the plan. He said he met with athletic director Bob Bowlsby on Sept. 6, 2007, about his contract and Bowlsby said he would get back to him in a week. Johnson had a year left on his contract. He said he never heard back from Bowlsby about an extension. He coached the Cardinal to within a whisker of UCLA and the Pac-10 title, reached the conference tournament title game and made it to the Sweet 16.
If he was intent on leaving, "Why did I schedule an exhibition game [for Stanford] with Cal State-Stanislaus?" he asked. His son, Terry, is a senior on the Stanislaus team this season. Stanford hosts the Warriors on Nov. 4.Within 48 hours after the Cardinal's loss to Texas in Houston, Johnson took a call from LSU. "I didn't have a contract in front of me from Stanford," Johnson said.
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Johnson didn't have the same academic restrictions at Nevada that he had at Stanford, but the WAC's Wolf Pack aren't in the same class as a school in the SEC. Stanford's talent options are about as small sometimes as those backyard wading pools. Johnson said three years ago when he signed the Lopez twins there wasn't another elite point guard who qualified to match in that class.
The structure hasn't been met with any resistance."Coach Johnson and the staff do things differently, and I enjoy the change," said senior wing Temple. "He speaks his mind. He's real good for this program."
Temple's father, Collis, describes Johnson as a coaching gym rat."He's all about basketball. He doesn't do the PR stuff. He's more into working in the gym and working in the office," Temple said. "I was involved with Dale [Brown] his entire career, and Dale was more of a PR guy. Brady wasn't a PR guy but got to be more as time went on. Trent is very intense about the game. He's nuts and bolts and a detail guy. He brings stability, and the young men feel he's committed to their well-being not just as student-athletes but as people, and consequently that builds self-esteem and confidence. It makes the kids play hard." Five of the players -- four veterans and one newcomer -- said after the workout last month that the chemistry (an overused term, but appropriate here), is much stronger than it was in the dysfunctional past season that left the Tigers 13-18. Johnson is too proud and too confident in his ability to coach to let the ending of his four-year tenure at Stanford sour him. "I'm going to do what I've always done," Johnson said. "And that's not going to change."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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