Johnston’s ’calming’ presence suits Tigers well in K-State upset

Rick Peterson Jr.

Todd Johnston received some relatable advice from Fort Hays State head coach Mark Johnson heading into Johnston’s unexpected head coaching debut.

With Johnson and assistant Jeremy Brown in quarantine, Johnston was in charge of guiding the team for Tuesday’s game at Kansas State.

Johnson, the Tigers’ 20th-year head coach, told his second-year FHSU assistant to embrace the moment and not be intimidated. Johnson recalled his first game as a head coach.

“He said that when he got the job at Fort Hays, he was 30 years old and his first game coaching was against the Kansas Jayhawks in Allen Fieldhouse against Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison and those boys, Roy Williams,” Johnston said.

“He just told me to enjoy it and that I would be fine,” Johnston said.

Johnston was better than fine, guiding the Tigers to a resounding 81-68 upset win over K-State at Bramlage Coliseum.

Johnston, 29, was informed Monday night he would be acting as head coach for the Tigers against the Wildcats. Johnson received a positive test result for COVID-19 on Monday, and lead assistant Jeremy Brown also went into quarantine as a close contact.

“Little bit of excitement, little bit of nerves,” Johnston said. “This isn’t what I was expecting, to be the head coach (Tuesday). It was kind of a shock, but also a little bit of excitement, as well.”

With Johnston directing the team from the sideline, the Tigers became the first non-Division I team to defeat a major conference team on the road since 2000.

“He got us where we needed to be,” FHSU guard Kaleb Hammeke said. “Kept us on our game plan and didn’t let us start doing anything that we shouldn’t be doing.”

Johnston joined the FHSU staff after two years as an assistant at Cloud County Community College. He also served as an assistant coach at Missouri Southern for one year (2014-15) and Benedictine College for two years (2015-17).

A Kincaid native, Johnston played collegiately at Cloud County Community College for two years and then at Baker University for two years.

Johnson, who watched the game from his house, told CBS Sports on Wednesday that Johnston has “a calming perspective” with the team.

“He's got good relationships with our players,” Johnson said. “Our guys respect him and we have really good guys on our team, and I knew they would respond to him and listen to him and give their best effort."

Team manager Marcus Willey acted as an assistant coach of sorts for Johnston on Tuesday.

“Marcus was good tonight,” Johnston said. “I told him before the game a couple things I wanted him to be in my ear about.”

Johnson will still be in quarantine when the Tigers take on Newman at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Wichita. Either Johnston or Brown, if cleared to return, will serve as acting head coach.

With Tuesday’s win going down as an exhibition for Fort Hays State, the 0-3 Tigers will be looking for their first official win.

Johnston hopes the K-State win will be a confidence booster for the Tigers.

“I think this shows that they’re very, very capable,” he said.