Catching Up with Head Coach Stan Johnson

(Photo by Maggie Bean/Marquette Athletics)

By Andy Hui.

Stan Johnson is LMU’s new men’s basketball coach, replacing Mike Dunlap.  He comes aboard after serving five years as an assistant coach at Marquette University.  In his first three weeks on the job, Johnson has hit the ground running – albeit in a virtual environment.  He has successfully hired a new coaching staff and quickly forged relationships with staff, alumni and fans.  On the player front, he has been busy getting to know returning Lions, retaining players that have entered the transfer portal, and recruiting new players.  We caught up with Coach Johnson to learn about his strategy and hopes for the LMU basketball program.    

What attracted you to the LMU job, and why was LMU right for you at this time?

I came from a place (Marquette) where the basketball program was run right and at the highest level.  There may be a handful of schools around the country that do it just as well, but I can say there isn’t a school that does it better.  I had the best assistant coaching job in the country, and it would take something special for me to leave.  First of all, LMU fit who I am as a human being.  I felt it was a place where I wouldn’t have to compromise things that I believe in.  LMU is a place I can sell because my personality and what the school stands for are in alignment.  I also felt that Athletic Director Craig Pintens has a vision and commitment to getting the basketball program to where we want it to be.  And with President Timothy Snyder’s support, I felt LMU was the right place at the right time with the right people to move forward in a new direction.  

What’s been the biggest surprise to you about LMU?

I can’t say there’s a big surprise.  It’s been difficult because I haven’t had the chance to be on campus due to the pandemic.  LMU has a great name and reputation as an institution.  When you talk to people and families, their interest peaks.  When you make a phone call, you want to represent a place that people respect.  While we won’t get every player we recruit, people are willing to listen to LMU.  And that’s a big part of it.  From there, we want people to go from curious to interested to committed, and that’s been encouraging for our recruiting efforts.  People have been very receptive to who we are as a staff. 

Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

They say the farthest distance in coaching is the six inches you move down the bench to the head seat.  Who’s been the biggest influence in your career development and helped you prepare for next season as Head Coach? 

I don’t think there’s just one person.  I’ve worked for many great coaches who have influenced my career.  I worked for Jeff Guiot (Southwest Baptist University) who taught me what it means to be a coach and pouring yourself into the lives of your players.  I then worked for Bobby Braswell (Cal State Northridge) who taught me the importance of organization in every aspect of a basketball program.  I then worked for Jim Boylen (University of Utah and current Chicago Bulls head coach) who taught me game preparation on both sides of the ball and paying attention to detail.  I worked for Mark Phelps (Drake University) who taught me the importance of empowering your staff and allowing your assistants to use their talents to help you be successful.  I moved to Herb Sendek (Arizona State University and current Santa Clara University head coach) who showed me what it was like to be a CEO and taught me about branding, how to run a program, and communicating your core message to the public.   And at Marquette, I worked for Steve Wojciechowski, who taught me the importance of maintaining consistency and bringing energy and enthusiasm to every practice.   

A wildly successful first-year head coach is Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors, who kept a basketball manifesto of notes accumulated over the years for use when he would one day become a head coach. Do you have a STANifesto?

Oh yeah.  Over the past few years, I’ve worked to formulate a plan from A – Z on what my program would look like if I were fortunate to be named head coach.  The plan included designs on what my practices would look like, coaching responsibilities, recruiting, organizational structure, marketing, and fundraising.  When you finally get that opportunity, there are many thoughts and ideas that go through your head on what needs to be done.  It’s very easy to get off track.  When I look at our 30-day and 90- day plans, there’s comfort in following an established and consistent approach.  While the plan reminds me of my commitment to certain standards, it also emphasizes the importance of flexibility.    

It’s been reported that your personality helps you stand out on the recruiting trail.  What is your secret, and what makes you effective as a teacher and leader of young men?

It’s reminding our student-athletes that it’s about them and holding them accountable.  At the end of the day, I want them to know that as their coach, I stand here for them.  We can’t properly convey that message to them just by things that are taught on the court, but rather, they are a result of things we do as a staff off the court.  I want to have strong relationships with all of our players and do things the right way.  And when you have solid relationships and passion behind that, you now have a chance for players to run through walls for the team and play at a higher level than they believe capable.   

Do you have a particular style of play?  Do you recruit to that style, or do you base your style on the talent you have on your team? 

I do have a style I want to play.  For this year, we will start to implement that style but it will depend on what our team looks like.  We may not be able to do that right away so we have to be flexible in our approach.  As we continue to build our roster and recruit, our team will have a nasty identity on the court.  I hope to have a team that is athletic and skilled, a team that can switch everything defensively, and a team that plays with great pace and tempo.  That is how I would love to play in a perfect world, and that’s what we will morph into.  But I want to have an identity that not only allows us to win, but also allows us to identify with our city (Los Angeles).  It is a team that’s hard-working, relentless, and attacking.  When people come to watch us play, I want them to say those things about our team. 

Tracking device being attached to player jersey

More and more programs are using analytical tools to gain a competitive advantage.  How do you plan on using analytics at LMU to drive decision-making?

For me, analytics are very important and provide guidance to things we’re trying to do.   It serves as a measuring stick for things I believe in.  From a statistical perspective, it’s important to understand where a team’s majority of points are scored (in the paint, in the charge circle, from 3-pointers) as an example.  Analytics can help ensure we take good shots and not long, contested two-point shots.  At Marquette, we went above and beyond that.  We used a device that measured the output of our players in practice.  The device also measured the amount of energy expended by our players.  We used the data to help make adjustments in practice intensity for some players and aid in recovery, injury prevention and practice length.  I plan to use these tools as guide posts at LMU.     

What happens when your natural instincts conflict with analytics?

The data is good and reliable.  As a coach, data and coaching instincts need to come together.  There’s a difference between instinct and wanting to do something.  When data does not support you doing something different, you have to trust the data.  Having said that, there are certain moments during a game or in a season when you have to trust your gut.  When I have a gut feeling, I’m okay with going against the data.  But I won’t go against what data shows just for the sake of doing something.  You have to know when your instincts kick in and when to trust the numbers.  That’s a feeling and comes from experience. 

(Photo: Sarah Stier, Getty Images)

How will you build a winning culture at LMU?

I want to say this.  Everyone that has come before me and my coaching staff at LMU has given their best regardless of what you think of them.  I am replacing a person who I respect tremendously.  Not only is Mike Dunlap a really good coach, he is a fantastic person.  Mike and his staff did a great job adding great people to our program.  Every player in his program graduated.  He’s done some incredible things and his players know how to work.  I am taking over a program that already has many great things in place.  My job is to add to that. 

How do we stand on the shoulders of what the previous staff have done, and how do we continue to lift the program higher?  My personality is different.  The way I communicate and organize with our team and staff will be different.  I will put my twist on all the work people have done.  The one constant is our team will be well-conditioned and well-prepared in all that we do – in the classroom and on the court.  I want our culture to have the following traits:  unselfishness, connection to each other, and being relentless. 

If we were to watch seven consecutive days of practice, what are three things that would be a consistent part of that week on the court?

One thing you’ll see is our defensive effort.  If guys don’t play defense, they won’t play for me.  When people talk about unselfish play, most would attribute that to offense.  For me, it’s defense.  Players who are unselfish put their bodies on the line, they protect their teammates, and they give the very best on every rep and every possession.  You’ll see a level of defense that’s incredible.  Second, you’ll see a team that shares the ball offensively.  You’ll see a team that will play the right way and try to make each other better.  And finally, you’ll see a team that plays with great pace.  Pace doesn’t mean playing out of control.  Sometimes pace means how quickly we get can get into a set and how quickly we can get to the end of that set as well.  Our tempo and working on that aspect will take a lot of time and work. 

Where would you like LMU Men’s Basketball to be one year and five years from now?

The five-year plan is really hard to project.  College basketball is so different today with the transfer market from years ago when you could look out three years and project your returning players and what your program would look like.  Nowadays, it’s very fluid and day to day. 

This year, an important thing for me and what I’m going to pay the closest attention to is our culture.  We have to get that right.  Do our players show up to class on-time?  Do our guys work extra and go above and beyond what is asked of them?  Are we unselfish as a team? Do we value every detail of our life and responsibility as a student-athlete at LMU?  When we step on the court, do our players give everything they can, win every repetition, and don’t take any plays off?  At the end of this year, I want to look back and say we set the standard, and our guys understood the importance of paying attention to detail.  If we understand that, we will have set ourselves up for great success by knowing what great habits look like.  And when you have good habits, you have a great chance of being successful.  Once we’ve laid a solid foundation, it becomes a player-led team and I no longer have to set the expectation because everyone has bought in to what we’re doing.  That’s what I hope for and years from now, we’re playing in big games.  That’s how you win and that’s how I want to start.  That’s my focus.    

There are so many players in the transfer portal today.  How do you deal with players joining and leaving a team and its effect on team chemistry?

Everyone better get used to it.  It isn’t going away.  You do the best you can — shower love on these guys, hold them accountable, and give them your best.  But at some point, if a player doesn’t want to be with you or feels he’s better off at another school, then that’s OK.  So if a player feels there’s a better situation, we’ll cheer for him.  I want guys who want to be here and guys who believe “LMU” across your chest means something.  I want players who want to be connected with us and that goes for our staff as well.  And our players should have the same feeling about me.  Hopefully they want a coach who believes in them.  If we are at a point where someone doesn’t want to be here, I can’t force them.  But we’re just going to keep plugging away and keep doing the best job we can.  But I know that for the players that really want to be here, their chances of winning are much greater here.   

How excited is your family about moving to the West Coast?

They’re pumped.  My family loved Marquette and Milwaukee.  My kids are young and grew up there so the last five years have been a huge part of their life.  So when I took the job, they were mad at me for about 5 hours.  But the next day, they were looking up beaches (on the internet), so I think we’ve crossed that path.  They’re excited to move to California and be in the sun. 

What can the LMU community and fans do to help you become successful?

They can join in.  If people think that everything will change just because of my arrival, they’re wrong.  It may change a little bit.  We have to move away from this “wait and see” approach, which we’ve been doing forever.  We need everyone to jump in and roll up their sleeves and get to work and see what can happen.  Let’s ALL go for it and see where we end up.  That’s what I hope and desire.  That’s why I came here.  I didn’t come here to do it alone.  I’m asking people to give us a chance.  I’m asking people to jump in and help.  I want this program to be one that people feel connected to.  So I’m opening up my office.  There is power in numbers and the more of us that come together to make LMU basketball special, the better chance we have of accomplishing that.