Just under a year and a half ago, Trent Johnson sat in his corner office in the Ed and Rae Schollmaier Basketball Complex. Recently hired by TCU as the new head men’s basketball coach, he had barely had a chance to hang pictures on the wall. Many fans were wondering one thing.
Why had he taken the job at TCU?
Some naysayers considered the switch from LSU to TCU a lateral move at best. Sure, Johnson and LSU might not have been a perfect fit, but why TCU?
He had been WAC coach of the year, SEC coach of the year and Pac-10 coach of the year. He had two Sweet 16 appearances and 226 career wins.
So why was TCU the right fit for Trent Johnson? Didn’t he know the Horned Frogs had not been to the NCAA tournament since 1998? Had he, like his predecessors Jim Christian and Neil Dougherty, misunderstood the state the program was in? Couldn’t he have sat on his laurels and sought a job with a program that had a vaunted history and a tradition of success?
But Trent Johnson said he knew the program had struggled mightily in recent years and that no, he did not misunderstand the situation.
Johnson said he knew exactly what he was getting into, although he acknowledged that he was accepting perhaps his biggest challenge yet.
Johnson said there was no singular reason why he had taken the TCU job.
“Basketball is my life,” he said. At age 55, he said he still loves being in the gym and hitting the road to recruit.
Johnson, a hard-nosed athlete whose coaching career has mirrored his playing career, still thrives on the competition.
As a high school basketball player in Seattle, Wash., Johnson said he was a tough defender whose blue-collar style of play mirrored the type of coach he has now become.
Johnson was one of five children who were raised for the most part by their mother alone, he said. Johnson rarely speaks about his father, a man who was largely absent from his life. But he said his mother, an employee of the Seattle public school system, instilled in him the value of hard work – a value to which he has dedicated his life.
He said his mother was demanding, and that he and his siblings all sacrificed to help her while making sure to not disrespect her authority.
Johnson said his mother taught him to never make excuses. While he was not the most skilled player on his college or professional team, he said he was devoted to becoming a tough defender. As a coach, he never made excuses for a Nevada program that had just two NCAA tournament appearances before his arrival.
These days Johnson is refusing to make excuses for a TCU program that presents a similar challenge to the one he found at Nevada.
“The rim is ten feet high anywhere you play,” Johnson said. “We’re going to get this thing turned around.”
After an impressive college career at Boise State and a stint with the Washington Lumberjacks of the short-lived Western Basketball Association, Johnson moved into coaching, and is now entering his fourteenth year as a head coach.
In 2004, Johnson took his dream job as head men’s basketball coach at Stanford University. He had previously been an assistant coach there from 1996-1999, when he left to become head coach at Nevada.
He had already earned a reputation as a dynamite recruiter, and his players quickly adopted the same hell-bent determination to win that drives Johnson, who loathes losing.
Johnson works the sideline with a scowl that ranks in the same realm as the Jon Gruden stare and the Pat Summitt glare.
Rarely does Trent Johnson crack a smile. As soon as a game or practice ends, preparation for the next day or reflection upon what just happened leaves no time for celebration.
Yet Johnson’s demeanor does not isolate him from the outside world, in the vein of coaches like Nick Saban. Rather, Johnson is simply dedicated to doing his job. The cult of personality that now surrounds many head coaches is held in contempt by Johnson, a private person in a position that constantly places him in the public eye
When he was inducted into the University of Nevada Athletics Hall of Fame earlier this month, he chose to talk about the staff and players at Nevada who made the experience so unique, rather than himself.
Before the induction, Johnson said to the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Chris Murray,“I know you want to ask me questions about me, but that’s not going to happen…All that is fine and dandy, but there are a lot of guys who lined up and played and were a part of this. You start talking about Donny Guerinoni and Matt Ochs, Richard Stirgus and Calvin Criddle, Tommy Zapata, Adrian McCullough, Terrance Green, Jerry Petty. The list goes on and on and on.”
Johnson conducts his business with a seriousness usually reserved for handling nuclear codes. However, his connection with his players has been a critical component of his success.
At each stop in Johnson’s career (and he readily admits TCU will be his last), Trent Johnson’s genuine care has endeared him to his players. Garlon Green, a senior on Johnson’s first Horned Frog team, said Johnson’s players know he cares and that they share a bond like that of father and son.
Green said he and his coach formed a relationship that transcended basketball.
“He showed a lot of tough love, but he was trying to grow us into men more so than basketball players,” Green said. “It’s not just about basketball. It’s about how we treat ourselves and how we treat the people around us. That’s something that he gave me that I thank him for.”
Green’s comments are evidence to the fact that each time Johnson left a school, he left behind players who came to play for a man whom they felt could relate to them. If he were Bill Clinton, he would have told them he felt their pain.
His on-court demeanor is not indicative of how approachable he is when a player wants to talk about life, about basketball or about anything
Sure, he is often a mean SOB on the court as he tries to instill in his players the mental toughness required to compete at the level he demands, but off the court, his door is always open
He quickly caught the attention of TCU fans by signing one of the best basketball recruiting classes in recent memory. And, as his five new players signed letters of intent, they said many of the same things as his players from over a decade earlier. Now at his fourth, and likely last, school, Johnson continues to sell himself to his players and to recruits.
“I feel like anyone would be honored to have [Trent Johnson] as their coach,” current freshman guard Michael Williams told Scout.com last October when he selected TCU.
The high-profile recruiting class has given fans hope that sunnier days are ahead for the program with Johnson at the helm. The tireless competitor in Johnson undoubtedly struggled to endure the 21 losses in his first season at TCU.
“I can’t go through last year again,” Johnson said.
He said he was reminded of a lesson he taught his own children: Reach for far-greater accomplishments than you think you are capable of and do something that no one, not even you, thinks you are capable of.
Of the 237 wins in Johnson’s career, he said perhaps none embody that lesson more than TCU’s improbable win last season against Kansas.
Directing a team that many thought might go without a win in Big 12 play, TCU grabbed its first victory against the most unlikely of opponents, the powerhouse Jayhawks.
Ranked fifth in the country before the game, Kansas was a clear favorite. In fact, a TCU win would result in the largest upset in college basketball since the creation of the NCAA’s Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). No team with an RPI as high as TCU’s at the time had ever beaten a top five team.
But on Feb. 6, it happened.
After the game, Johnson walked into the media room as he had 21 times already that season. No time for smiling, Johnson answered questions as if it were any other game. His demeanor even prompted a question from one media member as to whether he was even happy about the huge win.
At that, perhaps the smallest of wry grins crept across his face; but the hard-nosed competitor in him was probably already thinking about the next opponent.
He has fought expectations and made surprising moves throughout his entire career.
After all, just look at the job he took on in April of 2012. He certainly knew it would be rough going when he signed up to resurrect the TCU program.
An underdog his whole career, Trent Johnson is happy with that role.
That is why he’s at TCU.