Purchase photos

Tiger coach Johnson at 258 and counting

1/12/2014

By CONOR NICHOLL

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Fort Hays State University sophomore point guard Craig Nicholson played at Wichita Northwest High School. Nicholson received NCAA Division I interest from several schools and Wichita State University talked with Nicholson. However, Nicholson committed early to FHSU. He trusted coach Mark Johnson from his first conversation.

"All the other coaches kind of beat around the bush with me," Nicholson said. "I can just tell that Coach Johnson was honest with me. He never changes his personality with anything. He is always straightforward."

Johnson's daily consistency and personality has built a perpetual winner in his 13-year head coaching career. Former Tiger Corbin Kuntzsch, who has played the most games of any Tiger under Johnson, said his coach had a "boxer's mentality," a description Nicholson seconds.

Johnson has changed his offensive philosophy throughout the years, but his teams have long been hard-nosed, and have played strong defense and rebounded well.

It's produced the university's most successful program since the Tigers moved to the MIAA eight years ago.

On Saturday, Fort Hays defeated Lincoln (Mo.) University 88-85. Johnson moved to 258-109 in his Tiger career and broke Cade Suran's all-time wins record at FHSU. Suran won 257 games from 1946-65.

"First of all, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mark as a coach," said Tiger women's coach Tony Hobson, who won his 500th career game (all programs) earlier this season. "His teams, they always play at such an even keel. They are always prepared and that starts at the top. Defensively, they are always sound."

Johnson has led the Tigers to five NCAA tournament appearances and has won at least 17 games in all but one season and recorded seven 20-win campaigns. In a sport with constant turnover, Jeremy Brown has been Johnson's assistant for eight years and is in 12th season in the Tiger program.

"I think that makes a difference in success," Johnson said.

Johnson's unique defense of forcing teams to the middle -- instead of the baseline like most teams -- has delivered a scoring defense average of under 71.8 points every year.

"I kind of struggled with that, but once you get the hang of it, it's not that hard after all," Nicholson said.

Since 2004-05, Johnson's squads have limited teams to less than 67.3 points per contest on six occasions. FHSU has had a positive rebounding margin in all but one season in the Johnson era.

"He is a really good coach," junior Tom Gabric said. "I really respect him and we all play hard. First, when I came here for a visit, he was just looking at the defense. You've got to play defense in order to play offense and that's how we are winning."

In the parity-heavy MIAA, Johnson's 13-3 career mark in overtime games has helped the Tigers stay among the top. For his career, Johnson is 63-36 in games decided by six points or fewer.

"He makes the right plays at the end," Central Missouri coach Kim Anderson said.

Johnson, 43, won a state championship as a senior at Omaha Millard (Neb.) South High School, a team picture that's still displayed on his desk. He played at Kilgore (Tex.) Community College and Pittsburg State University.

"Eighteen, I don't know if I had any great thoughts on what I wanted to do with my future," Johnson said in a mid-December interview. "I just knew that I wanted to play basketball. I liked playing basketball and as I started playing in college, I still wanted to have basketball in part of my life."

After three coaching stops, including one as a graduate assistant, Johnson came to FHSU in 1996, the last season of coach Gary Garner.

"We are kind of from the same family, and I do think that we share a lot of the same ideas," said Anderson, who played at Missouri when Garner was an assistant.

Garner won a national championship and then left for Division I Southeast Missouri State University. Johnson had an opportunity to go with Garner, but decided to stay.

"I have been lucky that it ended up being the right decision," Johnson said.

In 2001, Johnson took over as head coach for Chad Wintz.

"You are always a little nervous the first time that you become a head coach and take over any program and obviously Fort Hays has a lot of history and expectations in the program," Johnson said. "You can call it dumb enough or confident enough to think that you handle the job and be successful."

Johnson, who consistently has a mix of high school and junior college players, teaches a basic defense. The force-to-middle defense doesn't have a lot of rotations and is more of a help and effort defense. Plus, Johnson doesn't like to overextend and give up easy baskets.

"Everyone can pick it up fairly quick and be able to go a month after the first practice and try to win games," Johnson said.

In 2005-06, FHSU went 27-4 in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, still the Tigers' best winning percentage with Johnson. Yet FHSU won a lot of low-scoring contests. When the Tigers joined the MIAA in '06-07, Johnson knew the offense had to change.

The talent level increased in the conference and FHSU had made a "conscious effort" to recruit shooters in each class. Since 2008-09, FHSU has shot at least 39 percent from beyond the arc five times. The Tigers did it twice in Johnson's first six seasons.

From 2006-09, FHSU averaged 68.4, 68.5 and 69 points per contest. Since then, the Tigers have put up 77.2, 81.3, 70.2, 76.2 and 87.2 a game.

"We thought that we needed to combine shooting with some of that athleticism and being able to guard," Johnson said.

This season, FHSU opened 0-3 in the conference, its worst MIAA start since the Tigers' first season in the league. Johnson never changed. Fort Hays won four in a row, including Saturday's milestone victory.

"I love playing for Coach Johnson," Nicholson said. "He makes us work harder. We wouldn't be in a good position as we are right now if he didn't get us to work hard everyday when we're at practice."