Spending time with … Dedication


Charlie Maricle

When people in and around the SDSU Athletic Department talk about Aaron Johnston, the adjectives first mentioned are calm, competitive, confident and dedicated.

Spend a week with him and you’ll understand why.

Feb. 14, 5:33 p.m.

SDSU women’s basketball coach Aaron Johnston stretches as he steps off the cramped van in which he and his team have spent the past hour and 45 minutes returning to Brookings from the Sioux Falls airport, accompanied by bad weather. The team has just returned from their road trip to the University of Colorado in Greeley.

For Johnston, the day began in Colorado at 5 a.m. Twelve hours later everyone is ready for the day to be done. It’s not.

The team heads to the Intramural Building on campus to get in a quick practice.

The team arrives upbeat but a bit sluggish. They should be both. Even with a 12 point victory over UNC, most of the team doesn’t feel 100 percent. Several have cold-like symptoms, others battle nagging basketball related injuries. But they’re all there.

Johnston is active. Reviewing his notes, sweeping the floor, getting basketballs out; making sure everything is in order. By 6:25 p.m., he’s ready for practice to start.

“All right, we’re on the clock, let’s get active.”

The clock reads 60:00. The countdown begins.

This practice is geared toward the next night’s game at the University of South Dakota.

Team drills focus on areas needing improvement. Post passing, guard shooting and 5-on-5 half court offense and defense dominate this practice.

At 7:37 p.m., the team heads to the film room to go over the scouting reports.

One of the players comments that they need to find their coach a girlfriend because a practice on Valentine’s Day just isn’t right. Johnston smiles.

“Don’t worry ladies, we’ll be out of here soon.”

Forty-five minutes later Johnston ends the evening. The team’s evening, that is.

His night will end in an attempt to unwind and be in bed by 10 p.m.

“I used to sleep a lot better when I was an assistant coach,” he says.

Feb. 15

Game day begins early for Johnston.

He needs to make sure the team’s warm up jerseys are washed and on board when they leave for Vermillion.

He stops at Perkins to join the team for a pre-game meal. The meal is enjoyable, but Johnston’s thoughts are elsewhere.

On the bus ride to the game, he tries to calm the nerves that lace through his thoughts. He closes his eyes in an attempt to rest. Jim the bus driver talks.

“So you guys are undefeated, huh?”

“No, we’re 21-1?”

“Oh? Who’d you lose to?”

“UND at UND.”

“Oh. Now you’re going to USD. I hear they’re a pretty good team.”

It’s a pleasant conversation, perhaps a distraction.

“At least it’s a nice day.”

Ah, good old Jim.

“Yeah it really is.”

The men gaze at the road, and the conversation trails off. Soon the Dakota Dome looms up ahead.

Johnston leads the team inside and down to the locker room. He continues to fight his nerves which have grown stronger since he entered the cool, cavernous building.

After storing his travel clothes, he heads to the court and interviews with the local radio station and Scotty Kwas who calls the game for KJJQ 910 AM in Brookings.

The pre-game media behind him, he sits down on the bench to try to relax. Coach and team go into the locker room with 36 minutes until tip-off.

The team returns to the court to finish warm-ups. Seven minutes later Johnston heads to the locker room alone. Concentration etched on his face, Johnston receives some help in calming those pesky nerves. A USD student has decided to follow him and inform Johnston what he really thinks of him. This brings a hint of a smile to Johnston’s face.

Tip-off. The first half is like any other first half. SDSU 39 USD 36. Johnston knows the second half will be just as tight. And it is. But SDSU can’t hang on. The team falls to their rivals 87-83.

This one hurts. Not because it’s USD, not because of what the standings are going to look loke tomorrow, not even because his parents were in the stands but because the win was in their grasp.

Post-game speeches after losses are like washing wounds. Done gently, with care, but it stings a little. Johnston knows.

“As a coach you can be a little more harsh when a team is winning because they’re on that natural high. But after a loss you have to tone the criticism down a bit,” he says.

Tomorrow is Sunday. Jonhston refuses to watch tape of last night’s game. Days after losses are hard.

Feb. 17

Monday can’t come soon enough. This week, it’s a holiday so not many people are around. Johnston is. His coaching staff is, too. After discussing the different things that the team and certain players need to do, they break for practice.

This practice is intense. Johnston calls the team together several times. Two hours later the team is done. Johnston said everything he could. Now he waits to see the team’s response tomorrow.

Later Monday, Johnston attends the Baltic Colman-Egan game. Recruiting is a process most coaches wish was unnecessary. It would be nice if every 18-year old ball player wanted to play for you.

Feb. 18

Tuesdays hold the only scheduled media event in Johnston’s week. He visits the local radio stations to talk about the season. Due to Saturday’s loss, today is unusually bitter.

But it’s not the end of the world, and Johnston is back in his office by 9 a.m. He focuses on cleaning his office, which is not in terrible condition. A few flyers that need to be glanced at then thrown away, a pile of game programs that must be filed and a few of his own notes that have been completed can be thrown away. After an hour, it’s clean enough.

Throughout the season, Johnston schedules individual meetings with each player to provide a forum for the players to talk about anything. It gives Johnston the chance to communicate with the players away from practice. Today’s meeting is at 10 a.m. It lasts 45 minutes, and both player and coach are happy with the results.

Another meeting which occurs periodically throughout the season is a booster club meeting in Sioux Falls. It is a chance for alumni and backers of SDSU athletics to socialize, talk and hear about the program. Johnston brings senior forward Melissa Pater. He answers their questions with the same answers he gives to all.

“USD played the best I’ve ever seen.”

“If you would have told me that we’d be 21-2 at this point in the season … I think most coaches would take that.”

“I think that you have to look at it as, we still have to win four games. We’re not in a tie for a conference championship right now. We still have four more games that we need to play. So I really want to think about that and then we’ll see where we are for the tournament.”

The crowd is satisfied. With a coach who has a winning percentage better than 60, who wouldn’t be?

Back in Brookings, he returns phone calls and answers e-mails until the next individual meeting. Then it’s practice time.

This day, he observes the team’s workout for a short time. Then he leaves for the Huron Mitchell game and later, home.

Feb. 19

Wednesday begins with serious study. Johnston checks video tape of Augustana, gathering ideas he wants to convey to his team.

After meeting with another player and another booster club, it’s back to the office to go over the day’s practice schedule. He goes to the health club. He doesn’t use on campus facilities because getting away is better for him.

But he’s back by 5 p.m. for practice. He smiles as he runs alongside his team. He can feel the relief they feel to be home.

Feb. 20

Home games are much nicer. The day creeps by but Johnston stays busys cleaning and returning messages. People stop by to wish him luck. But he readily admits the game is still on his mind.

After lunch he meets with his staff. Thursday-Saturday games are a quick turnaround so coaches must prepare. Johnston prepares.

He goes home to relax. His relaxation: cleaning. Those nerves are there again.

At 4:48 p.m. he’s back, dressed for the game. He goes to the floor to watch shootaround. He gives Kwas the usual pre-game interview then slides into the locker room. He talks to the team. By 5:33 p.m., Johnston is quiet. Now it’s the team’s time.

“Ladies and gentlemen, here’s your Jackrabbits.”

Tip-off. This game is never close. The Jacks jump fast and hard; no looking back. Final score SDSU 101 Augustana 66.

This one feels good. Levity creeps into Johnston’s post-game speech. But he immediately reminds the team that nothing is decided yet.

For now, he is happy. It’s always easier to sleep after a win.

He watches the men’s team play. This time it’s easier to concentrate. He can really watch this game. He’ll enjoy tonight, but he knows tomorrow it all starts again.

#1.887283:3963850555.jpg:aaron.jpg::#1.887282:645204416.jpg:AaronJohnstongameday.jpg:SDSU?s Aaron Johnston is fourth in career wins in women?s basketball. He led the team to a school record 28 wins last season and SDSU?s first appearance in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.: