McFeely: Jackrabbits coach Johnston dismisses speculation about Gophers job

Longtime SDSU coach says this time "no different" than other times he's been connected to open jobs

The 2023 Summit League Basketball Championship
Aaron Johnson, head coach of the South Dakota State Jackrabbits, shows frustration during his team's game against the St. Thomas Tommies at the Summit League women's basketball tournament Saturday, March 4, 2023, at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Dave Eggen/Inertia

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Aaron Johnston has been through this before. A college women's basketball job opens, Johnston's name is connected to it, fans and media speculate whether he might finally leave South Dakota State.

This time the circumstances are different since the open job is at the University of Minnesota, a Big Ten school in Johnston's home state located in an area the Jackrabbits recruit well. But his reaction, at least publicly, is the same.

"Every time a job has been opened, my name has been thrown around. So this time is no different. I think the only difference is social media is a little more prevalent. So really other than that, it's the same as any other time," Johnston said shortly after SDSU beat St. Thomas 87-59 in the quarterfinals of the Summit League tournament Saturday at the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center.

Johnston once accepted, then rejected the job at Wisconsin-Green Bay. He's been tied to many job openings, including Texas Tech a couple of years ago.

Johnston's name was tossed in the Gophers hat shortly after Minnesota parted ways with Lindsay Whalen after an 11-19 season. Summit League insiders immediately thought of Johnston as did the Twin Cities media. StarTribune columnist Patrick Reusee tweeted that Johnston would be the "easy choice" for Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle.


Johnston was also listed among four possibilities in a StarTribune article. The others were Marquette's Megan Duffy, Illinois State's Kristen Gillespie and Harvard's Carrie Moore.

Another potential candidate circulating among Summit League types in Sioux Falls: Former South Dakota coach Dawn Plitzuweit, who made the Coyotes into a mid-major power equal to the Jackrabbits before leaving for West Virginia of the Big 12 a year ago.

Johnston's resume probably exceeds all of those possibilities. He's from Pine Island, Minn., and went to Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. He coached at North Dakota State College of Science for a couple of years before going to Brookings. He was a graduate assistant on the men's team before joining the women's program.

He's been the head coach of the Jackrabbits since 1999. He got that job when he was 25 years old, meaning he's still only 48 despite having coached SDSU for what seems like a century.

The record is unmatched in the Summit League and perhaps all of mid-major women's basketball.

A 564-184 record, an NCAA Division II national championship, nine trips to the NCAA tournament and a WNIT title last year.

The fact he'd be the best candidate, perhaps the perfect candidate, is unquestioned.

But there's a problem. And it's a big one.


Johnston is a man and it's highly likely the Gophers are looking to hire a woman for the position. They've never had a male coach the women's basketball team.

And they currently have men coaching women's hockey (Brad Frost) and volleyball (Keegan Cook, just hired).

All signs point to the Gophers hiring a woman for this job.

If Johnston's name being bandied about for the Gophers job affected him or the Jackrabbits on Saturday, it didn't show. After a first quarter in which SDSU and St. Thomas figured out each other, the Jacks outscored the Tommies 73- 41 over the final three quarters.

It will take a massive upset for somebody to keep Johnston and the Jackrabbits from another trip to the NCAAs.

Even speculation about the coach's job status is unlikely to slow that train.

"We talked a little bit about it the other day, and I just reassured them that that social media stuff is just entertainment. It's not really news and not really factual," Johnston said. "Just like in the past, I think we were playing in the WNIT one year in the semifinals that was the talk of the newspaper and the news media that I was a candidate for another job. But really, nothing was going on then, either."

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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