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Star-Telegram.com

New TCU coach Trent Johnson is tough, and he expects his teams to be tough, too

Posted Monday, Apr. 16, 2012

By Stefan Stevenson

sstevenson@star-telegram.com

There are glorious stories told about Seattle high school basketball played in the early 1970s. It was and has remained a fertile place for talent, and the legends and legendary stories have never faded.

Trent Johnson, TCU's new men's coach, is right in the middle of many of those memories.

There was the time he blocked three shots on the same possession, bloodied his finger on the backboard and insisted he return to the game after a bandage was hastily applied.

"Every game, he gave all that he could give," said Dave Belmonte, Johnson's coach at Seattle's Franklin High School. "He was a vicious rebounder; almost going after it too much. But that's how he played, and kind of how he expects his kids to play."

That physical toughness and tenacity is something TCU lacked last season. It's just one of several obstacles Johnson, 55, faces as the program's 21st coach.

He declined to guarantee overnight success during his introductory news conference last week. That's not his style, said people who have known him best for more than three decades. Instead, Johnson guaranteed his players will play hard and be good students.

"It's my responsibility to make sure these guys understand accountability, integrity, responsibility," Johnson said. "Not just giving lip service to it, because it's never easy along the way."

At Boise State, Johnson grabbed 702 rebounds in 107 games in 1974-78, fourth-best career total in Broncos history. He tried briefly to play professionally, but accepted the reality when it was clear outworking the opponent was not always enough.

"You just wanted to play," Johnson said. "But I walked away knowing I had maximized my ability."

Although coaching hadn't occurred to Johnson as a kid, his teammates saw a coach in the making at Franklin.

"He was just one of those types of guys that was like in an apprenticeship class," said Robert Delgardo, who has known Johnson since middle school and played with him at Franklin. "He was always analytical. He was always the one who asked the questions. He was definitely that other coach on the floor."

Back in Boise, Johnson worked nights as a security guard while coaching as a volunteer at Boise High School. It didn't take long before he knew coaching was his passion.

"I want to make this my life," Johnson thought. "Ever since then, I've been very blessed. This game is everything to me."

So much so that during his five-year engagement to his wife of 31 years, Jackie, he joked that basketball would always come first. They have a son, Terry, and daughter, Tenisha, in their 20s.

"A lot of guys outkick their coverage, overachieve," Johnson said of Jackie. "I have an unbelievable woman."

By all accounts, Jackie Johnson had a lot to live up to if Trent's mother was his standard bearer. Everyone, including Trent, credits Floreen Birts for leading Trent and his four siblings down a successful path.

"Anything that's good about me comes from how I was raised," he said. "And that's my mother and the people I've been surrounded by."

Floreen, 78, who still lives in Seattle, was protective and stern, even shooing away kids she deemed unfit to play with her children. Johnson's penchant for being a tough disciplinarian comes straight from his mother. He's tough on his players and appears humorless barking orders from the sidelines. Even his news conference last week took a mildly tense turn during interviews with media. But those closest to him caution that's only part of his personality.

"He wears his emotions on his sleeve," Georgia coach Mark Fox said. "He can appear very gruff, which he is, but what people don't realize is he has a heart of gold and has a great spirit. He's unduly competitive, and I think he shows that on the sideline."

Fox and Johnson became friends in the late '80s when Johnson was scouting a junior college team Fox played on in Kansas. Johnson invited Fox to become an assistant with him at Washington, where he introduced Fox to his eventual wife. When Johnson earned his first head coaching job at Nevada in 1999, he hired Fox away from Kansas State. Fox succeeded him at Nevada when Johnson took over at Stanford.

"He believes a lot in old-school values and he tries to live that way and force his kids to buy into that as well," Fox said. "I wouldn't call him a throwback, because he also has a magnetic quality to relate to today's kid. I would say the game needs more people like him."

Jackie Johnson, who was born in Naples (just east of Mount Pleasant on I-30) but grew up in Boise, says one thing his new players will learn quickly is how meticulous he is.

"He is one of the most neat, organized and meticulous people you'll probably ever be around," she said. "Even when we were dating, I thought, 'Wow, he's so neat.' Everything has to be in its right place. Sometimes people like to play tricks on him, hide his phone or put things upside down."

It might be a while before anyone around TCU feels comfortable enough to clown around with the new coach, even if his wife insists he has a lighter side.

"You spend 20 minutes with him and you see a person that has a sense of humor and can be funny," she said. "You usually see a stoic look, so people associate that with him."

Delgardo, his former teammate and current assistant at Rainier Beach High in Seattle, says Johnson's players will learn how much he cares for them.

"He's a no-nonsense guy," Delgardo said. "He takes his job seriously. He wants the best for his kids and he tells them the truth. He's one of those hard-nosed, grinder types of guys. He's not a quitter. If you needed a guy to fight for you, he's the guy you'd want in an alley, I can tell you that."

Stefan Stevenson, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @FollowtheFrogs

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