Pine Island native Aaron Johnston is in his 21st year as the women’s basketball head coach at South Dakota State University in Brookings. Johnston has turned the Division I program into one of the strongest mid-majors in the country, including the Jackrabbits advancing to the NCAA Tournament nine of the last 12 years and his teams ending with a winning record in all 20 of his seasons there.
Johnston talked with the Post Bulletin about his recruiting philosophies.
How early do you start recruiting a player?
JOHNSTON: We start watching, evaluating and building relationships with players as early as their freshman year of high school. We use their (freshman and sophomore) years to get involved recruiting them as much as we can, starting that process, though we can’t initiate any of the contact until the summer heading into their junior year. The families have to reach out to us before then. Also, we do a lot of talking with (high school) coaches to find out who might be interested in us, and who might fit our style of play, our campus and our community.
What percentage of the kids you recruit are from Minnesota, and how desired are Minnesota kids overall for Midwest basketball programs?
JOHNSTON: Over the years, I’d say roughly 50 percent of our team -- maybe more -- has been made up of Minnesota kids. The other big percentage of our kids come from South Dakota. There are a good number of girls basketball programs in the state of Minnesota and a number of Minnesota kids who play Division I basketball all over the country. In Minnesota, you have just one Division I program but a lot of kids looking to play Division I basketball. Unless you’re looking to play Big Ten basketball, that creates a window for other programs to recruit MInnesota players. It helps us that we are only four hours away from Rochester and four hours away from downtown Minneapolis, so kids can come to us and still get home easily.
Why is Minnesota high school basketball as good as it appears?
JOHNSTON: Minnesota high school basketball is on an upward progression, for sure. There has been tremendous talent in the state. The high school programs are really good and continuing to develop, there is great coaching in the winter, and the spring and summer programs in Minnesota are highly organized, so there are just so many chances for those players to get great exposure.
What is it like competing for players with in-state rival University of South Dakota.
JOHNSTON: We’re not just recruiting against South Dakota, because there are a number of really good mid-major players in our area. It doesn’t always come down to the same schools recruiting the same players. Each of our schools has something different. We are different from Omaha, Des Moines, Vermillion (S.D.), and (others). Every campus is different and young people migrate toward what interests them. But it does happen where us mid-major programs run into each other recruiting. That would be a problem if the pot was small, but there are just so many good players out there. Sometimes it happens where us and South Dakota are battling over the same player, but not as often as people think.
How do you deal with it when you don’t land a player you’ve wanted in your program?
JOHNSTON: I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I’ve learned to roll with it. I’m always more focused on the players who do come here than the players who choose not to. You start worrying about the players you don’t get, then you’re in a bad spot. We try to stay true to who we are. We are not trying to win every recruiting challenge, though it could be easy to fall into that. You have to have a longtime approach to recruiting and know what is going to make you successful year after year. You have to sign people who fit all of your different dimensions.
How do you recruit kids — phone, texting, Instagram, Twitter?
JOHNSTON: I still prefer phone conversations. But texting has a big role. Social media has played a big role for us, but I’m not great at it. I don’t know a lot about social-media platforms. I’m not anti-social media, but I’m not invested in that. But programs have to utilize it. The best way to recruit, though, is to get them on campus, face to face. That is how you build relationships. I really value the interaction piece.
How much time do you spend on the phone with recruits during the course of a day?
JOHNSTON: A lot. With young recruits, they have to call us. When I’m home (Johnston is married with three children) and my phone rings, I have to make a decision. Sometimes I’ll take that call and other times I won’t because I have to have family time. But if someone calls me and I know that they may not be reachable for a long time after that, I might hit pause on the Netflix show we’re watching and take it. Our family benefits so much from being around college athletics, but with that, there are sacrifices, too. There are tradeoffs. But overall, our family handles that really well.
How do you get a kid to go to SDSU rather than Nebraska or MInnesota?
JOHNSTON: We’ve had quite a few players who’ve picked us over the Big 12 (Conference) or the Big Ten, and that has been a big part of our success. I think the feel here is different. I think we create a family feel and that players can have a great balance here between athletics, academics and personal time. Basketball here never feels like a job or a business. Plus, we have reached the NCAA Tournament nine of the last 12 years. So, this is a place you can come to and still win and have great fan support.
Do you care where a kid is from?
JOHNSTON: I don’t care where a kid is from. The reasons we’ve had so many South Dakota and Minnesota kids here is that they have really good players. It’s not that we won’t or can’t go further than that. Also, when a kid is from (South Dakota or Minnesota), there is a good family connection there with us because kids can then easily go home. It builds a connection to have everyone so close.
In the recruiting process, what is the biggest key for you? Is it an at-home visit, or a visit on campus?
JOHNSTON: The on-campus visit is the most important one. That is where a kid can see herself in the place she’s going to be spending time, at the dormitories at the university.