Ben Johnson grateful to be home with Gophers
Richard Pitino didn't come looking for Ben Johnson. Johnson came looking for him.
Johnson longed to come home, to his Minneapolis roots and the college he once played for.
So the former Minneapolis De La Salle and Gophers standout guard did some sniffing around just after Pitino replaced Tubby Smith as its head men's basketball coach. That was in the spring of last year. Johnson had just finished working under Tim Miles at Nebraska.
"When (Pitino) got the job, I thought it would be good to feel out the situation, to see if he had an interest in me coming here," Johnson said.
There was interest all right. Pitino quickly hired the intelligent, well-connected and personable Johnson.
Johnson had a sense of what he was getting into with Pitino, the son of Hall of Fame and current Louisville men's basketball coach Rick Pitino. He figured that the 32-year-old Pitino would know his stuff. There was that pedigree thing after all. And he knew there had been a lot of hanging around his father, who's had stops in college and the NBA.
"I'd heard of (Richard) and I knew he'd definitely been around the game and a lot of high-profile programs," Johnson said. "I knew he'd know what works and what doesn't work."
Now, one season later, Johnson can tell you what works best with this guy and how he got this team to crank out a surprising 25 wins.
"One thing that really stands out is that he has great people skills," Johnson said. "He has an ability to make people comfortable. He's a smart guy, he understands people, and he's funny."
Though the younger Pitino resembles his father in style and looks, Johnson says he's no carbon copy.
"He's his own man," Johnson said. "And it works that he is a younger guy. He can relate to the players well because of that."
Johnson spent the last year lapping up the experience of being back home, and working under a guy he's come to respect so much.
As far as the team is concerned, Johnson — as did so many — relished the wins over then top-20 programs Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa. He was also grateful for the 25 wins the team cranked out, and especially how it finished.
That was with a string of five straight wins and an NIT championship in New York City.
"I really felt good about how willing our team was to compete in the NIT (after being overlooked for the NCAA Tournament)," Johnson said. "It showed how competitive our guys are. It also showed the character of our seniors and just what our program is all about."
As for himself, Johnson admits to living a bit of a dream.
"It's been unbelievable," Johnson said. "Not many coaches get to come back to the place they grew up, and the college team they rooted for and then played for."
Kill likes Leidner
Jerry Kill also wore a smile Monday at Somerby Golf Course. Minnesota football — at this moment — is the most robust it's been in years, and Kill has been praised for the work he's done since joining the Gophers beginning in 2010. The Gophers have been to back-to-back bowl games, and had a stretch this season when they won four straight Big Ten games, a rare feat for this program.
"Winning those four straight Big Ten games, that showed us that we can compete with these people," Kill said. "We feel like we'll be an even better football next year. But the competition will also get better."
Kill has turned over the quarterback reins to redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner, Minnesota's unquestioned No. 1 QB after Philip Nelson transferred to Rutgers at the conclusion of the football season.
Kill has faith in Leidner, who started a handful of games this past season and showed promise.
"He's take the job and run with it," Kill said. "He's shown great leadership. This is his time."