He has received mostly mockery and scorn rather than credit but Trent Johnson deserves due recognition for what is going on with the TCU basketball program.
As the team prepares for its final game of the season — an appearance in the NIT final — a portion of this is because of the man who herded the program through the transition from small time to big time.
“Let’s just cut to the chase right now — you don’t think I’ve been watching?” Johnson said in a phone interview on Wednesday morning. “Of course I’m happy for them. I never had any question about it, I knew they were going to be good this year.”
Nearly all of the positive headlines about TCU’s basketball rise this season have been about the former player who returned to his alma mater to coach the team to record achievement. Jamie Dixon is a finalist for a coach of the year award, which he should win.
We are talking about TCU basketball in the NIT final. Go ahead and build the statue now.
The history books will indicate that Johnson was yet another losing coach for TCU basketball, but the fine print should include an assist to TJ for the most successful season in its history.
It was a terrible job when he took it, and he was the one who had to eat it before the program was ready to even have a chance to win at this level. He never complained, and he never pointed a finger at anyone other than himself. He recruited decent guys, and few men took the responsibility of raising youngsters into young men more seriously than Johnson.
“He coached these guys hard. They had a lot of challenges,” Dixon said Wednesday from New York, the morning after his team defeated Central Florida in the NIT semifinals. “We are reaping the rewards of his hard work and discipline.”
Johnson was fired by TCU last spring with two years remaining on his contract, four years after he left LSU to take over a program that was entering its first season as a member of the Big 12.
The Horned Frogs were 50-79 in his tenure, which included one winning record and an upset at home over No. 5 Kansas in 2013.
The job he accepted was not the position he left.
He inherited an inferior roster that was built to be barely average in the Mountain West Conference. Other than himself, he had virtually nothing to sell to a fan base that never cared much about the sport.
He also had the unfortunate distinction of playing in a high school gym, far from campus, while his home arena was under renovation.
To win in those circumstances was going to require John Wooden with John Calipari’s recruits. Not many coaches were going to win with obstacles in front of Johnson.
Despite the circumstances, he did land good players who are the bones of what has been a record year for the team. Players like Kenrich Williams, Alex Robinson, Vladimir Brodziansky, JD Miller, Michael Williams, Brandon Parrish, Kaviar Shepherd, etc. comprise the majority of the production of this particular team.
Johnson was the one who found a guy like Kenrich Williams, easily one of the most underrated players in the Big 12. Johnson found Brodziansky, one of the most creative scorers in the league. Johnson convinced Robinson that TCU was the place to be after he decided he wanted to leave Texas A&M.
The Trent Johnson era at TCU was neither a success nor a failure. It was a necessity. Someone had to be the grunt.
If it was a total failure, Jamie Dixon and his team would not be playing in the NIT Finals in Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
“Everywhere I’ve been, I don’t look in the rearview mirror,” Johnson said.
Johnson still lives in Benbrook with his wife and is busy chasing his three granddaughters. He sounds upbeat and like a man who is not done with coaching.
Since he left TCU, he spent one week watching Roy Williams practice with his team at the University of North Carolina. Another week at Duke watching coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Trent coached a group of Pac-12 All-Stars in a tournament in Australia. He’s done some consulting for the NBA.
At 60, he’s open about returning to coaching. It would not be a big surprise if he took a job and hired his son to work along with him. Terry Johnson is an assistant at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
Trent Johnson spoke with Dixon not long after he took the job. The two have known each other for years, and they were able to have an easy conversation about the realities of the job.
“I told him, ‘First of all, congratulations,’ ” Johnson said. “And I said, ‘You’ve got a great group of guys who are battled tested. You’re going to do just fine.’”
He was right.
And he deserves some of the credit, too.
Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.