Stan Johnson was a child when he faced the wrong end of a rifle during political upheaval that tore apart his homeland, the West African nation of Liberia. The experience has stayed with Johnson, who was hired in March to coach Loyola Marymount’s men’s basketball team, but it didn’t lead him to live in fear. It has given him powerful motivation to leave a positive and personal touch on the world, one pat on the back, caring observation and charismatic smile at a time.
Son of a Liberian father and American mother of Cuban heritage, Johnson was fortunate his mother’s U.S. citizenship allowed the family to escape Liberia. They settled in Taylorsville, Utah, where he became the automatic last pick for his grade school’s teams after he instinctively kicked a basketball sent his way during recess because he grew up playing soccer. Others laughed. He resolved he’d never be embarrassed again. Not so many years later he earned a Division I basketball scholarship at Southern Utah.
He began coaching in 2003 and crisscrossed the West and Midwest for 17 years — including a stint as associate head coach at Marquette — before he got his first head coaching job, with the Lions. Starting his tenure during the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to recruit via Zoom, but 247sports.com ranks his recruiting class 12th. His staff didn’t gather as a group until they all took coronavirus tests last week and he hasn’t met half of his team, but he considers those factors to be inconveniences. He knows a real challenge.
“I escaped a war at 10. I come from really the gutter in this business. I don’t come from a tree,” Johnson said last week in a video conference call. “I was at gunpoint at 10 years old with 15-year-olds holding M16s. We got evacuated on a war jet on a mining strip. We came to this country with three bags. That stuff, I think, has helped shape me for this task that I have.”
He’s intent on putting Loyola Marymount back on the college basketball map, and that’s more like a massive mission than a mere task.
The Lions haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1990, when Bo Kimble led coach Paul Westhead’s high-scoring team to the Elite Eight after Hank Gathers had collapsed on the court at Gersten Pavilion during a West Coast Conference tournament game and later was declared dead. The Lions were 11-21 last season under Mike Dunlap and have had one winning record in the last eight seasons. LMU gets lost in the noise and numbers in a market saturated with college and professional sports teams.
Enter Johnson. Among his first actions was to schedule “Coffee with the Coach” Zoom meetings every Friday with former players, alumni, donors, deans and LMU marketing students. He meets every Thursday with a steering committee whose members can get him in the right doors for fundraising, and he created an advisory circle to help him monitor players’ mental and emotional well-being through sharing knowledge. Every two weeks, he talks with athletic department and school marketing officials.
“The people that I’ve worked with that I’ve respected the most, they always made you feel like you were working with them. They never made you feel like you were working for them. And man, there’s power in that,” he said. “I hope that’s what we’re creating.”
To Johnson it’s all about connecting. “We’ve had some good coaches here and I find it hard to believe that everybody that came here did not try to give their best,” he said. “So, what’s going to be different? The difference moving forward has to be the power in numbers that we have with me. We’ve got to have more people on board that are rowing the boat in the same direction. This can’t be just, ‘Well, coach Stan is here, let’s see what he’s going to do.’
“As the academic adviser I want you to have every bit the urgency that I have. This is your program. You are one of the coaches. As the fundraiser for men’s basketball, I want you to feel you’re every bit a part of our team. We need you to be successful. Strength coach. I could go down the line.”
Those meetings have been illuminating. “It’s helping me understand why things have been how they are,” he said. “I don’t want to come here and say, ‘This is how we’re going to do it.’ I think the more you make people feel like they’re a part of your organization and a part of your plan the more invested they are and the more they go above and beyond the call of duty, and that’s what we want.”
He adapted as well as possible to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, borrowing the motto “Win the Wait” from Clippers coach (and former Marquette standout) Doc Rivers. Johnson and his staff met remotely with scouting services, high school coaches and AAU coaches, and watched countless hours of video on recruits. Johnson has been known as a good recruiter, and he put that to good use in getting commitments from shooting guard James Nobles of Lake Balboa Birmingham High, point guard David Elliott of Birmingham High and combo guard Lamaj Lewis of Bellflower St. John Bosco.
“There’s no book for it,” Johnson, 40, said of working during a pandemic. “We have three guys that are committed in the ‘21 class, three kids signed with us when I got the job. All six of them I’ve never met, physically. Think about it: My current team, I have not met over half of our guys in person.”
Johnson also used his time the past few months to settle in Manhattan Beach with his wife Brittany and children Brooklynn, 11, Myles, 9, and Braylon, who will be 5 on Sunday. Johnson regrets Myles couldn’t play basketball and that all three kids lost chances to make new friends because of social-distancing requirements, but he believes they’re resilient enough to thrive in their new surroundings. “They always find a way to connect,” he said.
No doubt, they inherited that trait from their father. After moving around so much for his career — his longest stop was five years at Marquette — he’d like to make Southern California his family’s home for a long time. “I’ve had to fight for every inch,” said Johnson, “and I’m grateful for it because I think it’s going to be what is going to be needed here.”
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