As a 10-year-old, Stan Johnson wasn’t thinking about basketball. He was concerned with the violence breaking out in his home country.
Johnson, the newly hired LMU men’s basketball head coach, spent his early years in Liberia in West Africa. In 1989, a civil war broke out and many people throughout the nation looked for a way to escape. Fortune broke in Johnson’s favor: his mother, a United States citizen, received help from the American embassy to evacuate their family.
“My parents left their whole life behind,” Johnson recalled. “We moved to the states with three bags.”
Along with the rest of his family, Johnson settled in Salt Lake City, where he was one of only a few African American children in a predominantly white area. He had never played basketball before, but on the playground, stereotypes rose up. “You’ve got recess, they’re picking teams and I got picked first,” Johnson said. “You know, they just assumed … that guy, he’s got to be able to play — not knowing that I was the worst player on Earth.”
It wasn’t long before Johnson became the last player picked at every recess, which made him determined to get better. He worked hard enough that the following school year, he became the first selection once again.
Johnson spent the rest of his youth in Utah, attending Taylorsville High School and earning All-State honors as a basketball player. When it came time to make his college choice, his decision wound up surprising a lot of people — including himself.
“My family and I, we would drive on I-15 South,” he remembered. “You pass by Southern Utah on the freeway. You see the signs, you go past it, you see the football stadium … and I remember I was going, ‘There is no way I would ever go to school at a place like this.’”
Throughout middle school and during some of high school, Johnson was turned off by Southern Utah’s small-town location of Cedar City. But by the time it came to make his decision, the school that had once been an afterthought proved to be his best option. The coaching staff wanted him and believed in him.
As a member of the Thunderbirds, Johnson served mainly as a role player off the bench for the most successful era in Southern Utah basketball history. In 2000-2001, Johnson’s sophomore season, the team went 25-6 and reached the NCAA Tournament as a No. 14 seed, nearly pulling off a first-round upset of Boston College in the East Region. To this day, it remains Southern Utah’s only March Madness appearance.
“Southern Utah has led to who I am today,” Johnson said. “That experience allowed me to understand what winning looks like, what special things can happen when you have a connected team, when you have an unselfish team and you have a relentless team, because that’s who we were.”
It wasn’t just on the court where his transformation happened, either. Even in his capacity as a player, Johnson regularly hosted recruits and learned how to be vocal. After he finished his college playing career, the decision to get involved in coaching was a no-brainer.
“I just never wanted to take my hand out of the huddle,” he explained. “When you’re on a team and you’re in sports or you’re in athletics, there’s nothing like putting your hand in a huddle and I didn’t want that feeling to leave.”
Johnson says that he has always taken an analytical, coach-like look at the game of basketball, which made coaching the logical next step. His first job came right out of college as an assistant at Division II Bemidji State in Minnesota, where he had finished his playing days. In total, he has served as an assistant coach at two Division II schools and five Division I schools.
“When I was a DII coach, guys used to call me and say, ‘I think I got a player for you. I think he’s a DII guy,’” Johnson said. “And I used to say, ‘What does that mean? Because if he sucks, he can’t play here.’ The DII [schools] I was at, we had some of the best teams in the country and guys that were there only because academically they didn’t make it [to Division I].”
Each of Johnson’s coaching stops has shaped him in a different way. Some of his stops were at big-name programs such as Utah and Arizona State. Others, such as Cal State Northridge, were decidedly not. Johnson called recruits to tell them that they shouldn’t expect to play in front of large crowds if they committed to the Matadors.
Johnson most recently served as associate head coach for Marquette in Milwaukee, where he had access to some of the best tools of his career.
“There’s some great coaches everywhere,” he said. “How you resource is completely different. What you can do in terms of player development and the competitive advantages at a place like Marquette … you don’t have that at the Division II level.”
He considers Marquette to be the best job for an assistant coach in the country and he knew it would take something incredible for him to leave. But thousands of miles away, LMU searched for a new head coach. The athletics department did research, looked at analytics, talked to consultants and quickly came across Johnson’s name.
“Any time you’re doing a search, you start with a pretty wide net. You look at a lot of different people and Stan was somebody who was there right from the beginning,” said LMU Athletic Director Craig Pintens. “Once we got an opportunity to speak with him, he validated everything that we had heard about him and even more.”
Johnson was attracted to the opportunity to be a head coach, especially on the West Coast and at LMU. Even though he has only been the coach for about a week, he is already building a relationship with his new team and is talking to the players more or less every day.
“I see a team that has a chance. I see a team that has some really good pieces,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to improve our roster, but I do feel like we have great starting blocks.”
Both Pintens and Johnson are excited for the next step of Johnson’s coaching career and the potential that he brings to the Bluff.
“He is going to pour every ounce that he has into this program and hopefully deliver a product that everybody can be proud of,” Pintens said.
Johnson is emphasizing patience, but believes that he can accomplish great things for the Lions.
“I think we have an unbelievable opportunity to do something incredibly special,” Johnson added. “It's not going to happen overnight. It's not going to happen in a day. Not just going to happen in a year. But if we can get the right people on board then we can create the kind of culture that is conducive to winning.”
No matter how long it takes, one thing will stay the same. Johnson will still be amazed that the same 10-year-old kid who fled a civil war and fell in love with a sport got to where he is today.
“That little ball, that orange ball gave me a chance,” he said. “A kid from Liberia, West Africa [connected] with a Caucasian kid from Salt Lake City, Utah. And I found that the game is just powerful that way.”