Terrence Johnson gets his shot as head coach for Bobcat basketball

Terrence Johnson

“My path has taken me through some challenging situations and circumstances, but I wouldn't change anything about it. It's made me who I am, and given me a story that resonates with each of my players no matter where they are in their lives or what obstacles they are trying to overcome.”

Story by Mark Wangrin

man holding basketball
man throwing basketball into hoop

Terrence “TJ” Johnson’s path to becoming head coach of the Texas State University men’s basketball program on March 11, 2021, has been filled with more sharp turns than a Rocky Mountain switchback. It would take too long to detail the journey as the native Louisianan ping-ponged between coaching at all levels and the private sector, sidetracked by hurricanes and coaching staff changes, and unappealing environs. Suffice it to say, it is as unconventional as the 42-year-old first-time head coach. 

After his first season as head coach, Johnson would go on to lead the Bobcats to the 2020-21 Sun Belt Conference Championship and also be named Sun Belt Coach of the Year.

“My path has taken me through some challenging situations and circumstances, but I wouldn't change anything about it,” Johnson says. “It's made me who I am, and given me a story that resonates with each of my players no matter where they are in their lives or what obstacles they are trying to overcome.”

When Coach Danny Kaspar resigned in June 2020, Athletics Director Dr. Larry Teis looked first to Johnson, Kaspar’s top assistant and recruiter. “He told me, ‘I want you to know if you knock it out of the park, I don’t see a reason why we need to do anything different than what we’re doing,’” Johnson says. “So basically he let me know that the door was open for me to do my best and he would do right by me if I did.”

The situation that Johnson stepped into was challenging. He inherited a team picked fifth in the Sun Belt West Division, had lost star player and leader Nijal Pearson (B.B.A. ’20), was disrupted by Kaspar’s departure, and was facing the start of the season in four months.

Johnson’s approach differs from other coaches. Take fear, for instance. Johnson doesn’t use it as a cudgel to motivate. He seeks out mentors who’ve made mistakes he can learn from, he wants to know about and understand setbacks. He wants a team culture that’s not his but owned by his players and their families.

“You have to be able to put yourself in each one of those guys’ shoes and see it from their perspective,” Johnson says. “Their thoughts and fears and families and all of that stuff. That was the toughest part — hands down.”

coach talking to players during game

“One reason that I believe he was able to step into the situation so well is that he doesn't take any shortcuts,” Pearson says. “He does everything the right way and he grinds extremely hard to ensure you know that he's looking out for you. He keeps trying to figure out ways to better himself, better people around him.”

On the cusp of the season’s first practice, Johnson heard about internal bickering and cliques being formed within the team. Rather than read them the riot act, he reached out to Dr. Hillary Jones, assistant director/operations and assessment with the Counseling Center.

basketball coach talking to players during game

“Our guys were not getting along, not connecting, not the team that won 21 games the year prior,” he says. “Jones provided a safe and supportive environment, she allowed our guys to express themselves, she allowed our guys to hear different perspectives and points of views, and allowed our guys to be vulnerable because she created that environment.”

The next step was for the team to put words into action. Johnson was content to wait. He canceled one practice, then two, and then three while the players sorted out their differences. It wasn’t until all 14 players texted him that they were on board that practices started up.

The Bobcats lost three of their first six games, including a shocking loss to Our Lady of the Lake University. In late December, the Bobcats played at the University of Denver and fell behind by 20 points at halftime. When Johnson entered the locker room, he knew it was time to exorcise the “ghost” of Pearson.

“These guys were kind of sheltered because he did it all,” Johnson says. “He dealt with all things dealing with leadership, all things with communication with media and staff, he was the go-to for all of us. He made all our jobs easier. I think these guys were looking around wondering how they are going to even make it.

“I needed to assure them that Nijal is not coming through the door. No matter how hard you look at the door, he’s not turning the knob. Then I needed to empower them. Nijal’s given them the blueprint. That was one of the turning points. Just getting them to understand that he’s going to always be with you because you don’t know it yet, but you’ve learned so much from him. When you’re in those situations you’ll know what to do.”

basketball coach and player during game

So empowered, the Bobcats stormed back to win 70-68.

That was just the start of the challenges. Johnson worked to have his players accept successes and take ownership of their failures. There were the challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic — social distancing and isolation, no crowds at games, unbalanced schedule, and daunting road trips. Recruiting, vital after a coaching change, was put on hold.

“I think the last thing that a student-athlete needs is more on their plate,” Johnson says. “That’s basically what COVID did, gave them less time for social interaction, redefined what social interaction was. It hurt the staff because we could not embrace our guys the way we would normally do it.”

Just as the Bobcats went on a late-season run, heading into a conference game against Arkansas State with the Sun Belt title within reach, they learned they would be doing it without their coach. Johnson had tested positive for COVID-19.     

The Bobcats, though, had learned what to do. They beat the Arkansas Red Wolves and then the Warhawks of the University of Louisiana-Monroe in the first of two regular-season ending games at home for the school’s first conference title since 1999. When Johnson, in isolation after the positive test, pulled up to the Strahan Arena loading dock after the game, his players mobbed the car in celebration.

“It was a very emotional day,” Johnson says. “I was away from the team, so I was grieving them and missing them a little bit not being able to be around them and share that moment with them.”

If Teis needed any more validation that Johnson was the right fit, he had gotten it. “You could tell how much our players admired him and appreciated the hard work he had put in to make our team successful,” Teis says. “When the players were celebrating on top of his car, it was a special moment. It was easy to name him our head coach.”

That was not lost on Johnson, who lauded the administration’s willingness to promote assistant coaches to replace departing head coaches.

“I don't know if there’s another university in the country that has done that for young assistants that have shown themselves competent, loyal, hardworking, dedicated, and just excited about the opportunity,” Johnson says.

The door, then, is staying wide open. “What excites me the most is that we just did it our own way,” Johnson says. “I don’t know how else to say it. There’re a lot of people out there that have this blueprint to this game and feel like everything needs to be done that way. But we did this our way.”

Shortly after he was named interim coach, Johnson’s sister-in-law, Brooke Nye-Johnson, sent him a gift to boost his confidence. In it was a pen-and-ink drawing by artist Alan Dean, with a portrait of civil rights icon Rosa Parks next to an image of her steadfastly refusing to give up her seat at the front of the bus.

“At the very bottom of it in very small print, it says, ‘This is my seat,’ ” Johnson says. ”When you’re in an interim seat, you need confidence. Sometimes you don’t always have someone call you and encourage you that you’re doing a good job and even though you may have lost this game, that you’re still doing the things that winners do.”

The framed print rests in his office, next to his phone on the credenza behind his desk and the long-awaited seat he is poised to keep. ✪