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Friday, October 3, 2008
After years on West Coast, Johnson finds a good fit in the Bayou

By Andy Katz
ESPN.com

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.

Trent Johnson
Trent Johnson is greeted by LSU AD Joe Alleva after becoming the Tigers' new head coach.
Collis Temple Jr., the first African-American player at LSU in 1971 -- a man who didn't play with another African-American player in his career and says he sent 15 to 20 Baton Rouge-area players, from Brandon Bass to Tyrus Thomas to Glen Davis to his two sons Collis III and current senior Garrett Temple, to the school -- couldn't hold back the tears last April.

"Candidly, I cried when it happened," the 55-year-old Temple said. "It's like a world away from where things began during my first year at LSU. For my son to play for him, for such an accomplished guy such as Trent Johnson, it's a wonderful turn of events for me."

Johnson became the first African-American permanent head coach at LSU when he stunned the coaching community by walking away from a Sweet 16 team in Palo Alto and taking the job in Baton Rouge. After Brady was fired abruptly Feb. 7, Pierre, who is African-American, replaced him for the remainder of last season. Pierre was a candidate for the job (and left in the spring to be an assistant at Oklahoma State). Another candidate was North Texas' Johnny Jones, who is also African-American, but ultimately there was no one more qualified and more, as Temple said, "accomplished," among the pool of candidates for this job than Johnson.

And no one on the list of coaching changes from the offseason might have more of an immediate impact. LSU was desperate for a man like Johnson. A talented, healthy roster led by potential SEC West first-team player Tasmin Mitchell, who was out all but three games last season with a foot injury, and senior, experienced SEC players Temple, Marcus Thornton and Chris Johnson makes this the perfect marriage.

"This program needed new life," Mitchell said. "I know we went to the Final Four two, three years ago [in 2006], but that's gone."

Mitchell said Johnson's businesslike approach and his sincere concern for his players' overall well-being on and off the court have made an immediate impact. Add in that he is blazing a trail in Baton Rouge, and the players are ecstatic over his hiring.

"What it shows is LSU's character," Mitchell said of the hiring of the school's first African-American head basketball coach. "It shows the character of the chancellor, of the athletic director, and its shows they are accepting of people as they are, not because of the color of their skin tone."

If we don't win at an elite level here, then it's on me. No excuses.

--Trent Johnson

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.

Tigers On The Prowl

It wasn't long ago that LSU was playing in the Final Four. Things haven't been as sweet for the Tigers since, but with a new coach and a healthy lineup, LSU has plenty of reasons to think big in the SEC. Andy Katz
Johnson met with LSU and its new athletic director, former Duke AD Joe Alleva, at the Final Four in San Antonio on the Sunday between the national semifinals and the championship game. He was named the coach of the Tigers four days later.

Johnson said he wasn't bothered by Montgomery's presence around the program last season while he worked as a commentator and an assistant to Bowlsby.

"I heard all that nonsense, and I [told] Mike point-blank several times if you want this job, you can have it," Johnson said. "Mike recruited me, and there's nothing he said or could do that would make me be disloyal to him. That's the way I am."

Montgomery took the Cal job five days before Johnson jettisoned himself to LSU. Montgomery has denied repeatedly that he would rather have returned to the Stanford job had he known Johnson was going to leave.

"I'm never worried about losing my job, and my job is to just worry about doing my job, that's it," Johnson said. "There was a lack of respect shown and a lack of commitment from Bob, and it was pretty obvious."

Johnson went on to say his experience at Stanford and Nevada was "great."

But the opportunity to have unlimited resources was too good to turn down.

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.

Tasmin Mitchell
LSU's Tasmin Mitchell is healthy after missing all but three games last season with a foot injury.
LSU has had a good run of local talent. But there's no reason the Tigers can't continuously challenge for players in Texas, the rest of the South and now, with Johnson's contacts, in the far West.

"You can build a team and build a program and go get an athlete and go get a skilled and overachiever and go in a multiple of directions," Johnson said. The focus is on keeping the elite players in the state. But Johnson doesn't anticipate any part of the country is off limits.

During a team workout last month -- allowed under the two-hour-a-week rule with the entire team -- Johnson was coaching fundamentals. He doesn't bark out commands. He teaches with a stern voice, corrects and seems to demand discipline.

"I'm not the brightest guy in the room or the best coach in the country," Johnson said. "I keep it simple. We will defend, rebound and take care of it and take good shots."

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.