Kenny Johnson joined the Rhode Island staff as assistant coach in April 2022. Known as an elite recruiter and developer of talent, Johnson’s journey is a varied and interesting one having transitioned careers from the science industry to the sidelines.
Sincere about connecting with young men to develop them holistically, Johnson is excited to be alongside Archie Miller and to help him execute his vision of building Rhode Island into a perennial winning program.
We connected for a wide-ranging conversation…
CDD: You have an interesting background. You played in high school before injuries cut your playing career short… you thrived in the sciences, graduating from the University of Maryland in 1999 and then transitioned from molecular biology into coaching. What was it for you that triggered that jump for you?
KJ: My competitive nature. I had a love for the game. I loved playing it and watching it… and I developed a love for coaching it. The coaching honestly started by helping my family. I had a cousin who was playing high school sports. I started attending his games. Ended up scouting for his team and ultimately coaching in the summer with his team. After having some success with that I ended up joining a staff with Eleanor Roosevelt High School coaching in the wintertime – with a good friend Glenn Farello who is now the coach of Paul VI Catholic High School. [If you fast forward many years they are now one of the top 10 schools in the country.]
I got started coaching with him and this ultimately led to, a few years later, coaching Triple Threat AAU program which transitioned to becoming Team Takeover AAU which is a Nike program in the EYBL.
I was working my scientist job by day, coaching high school sports by night and I felt like coaching was my calling and my passion. I love science, the challenges, and the ability to figure out ways to help humankind…but my passion was seeing young men not have to repay student loans. That’s what it started off as, figuring out a way to affect as many lives as possible… in helping them to not have to repay student loans and get a college degree. I think what I’m most proud of in my years as a youth coach is to help over 200 young men get college scholarships at all different levels. I felt that was my calling from God to help people and that’s what encouraged me to make the career change.
CDD: What year did you fully make the jump to coaching and out of science?
KJ: I believe it was around 2006. I switched careers and went from being a scientist to the Department of Human Services in Washington, D.C. as a fraud investigator. A part of that journey was betting on myself. I gave myself a five-year window to pursue what became my dream to be a college basketball coach. The hours of this DHS job were 7:30-4:00pm and were more feasible. I could get to my jayvee head coaching job. Four and a half years into that journey I got a call from Coach Pat Skerry at Towson University and was offered a coaching job at Towson.
CDD: Can you give fans an understanding of what you’re listening, reading, and watching these days – basketball or not?
KJ: There are so many different podcasts that are educational. It’s a lot of motivational tools, tricks of the trade… I love studying the people I feel have been successful in the business and I try to emulate their positives. I try to turn my brain off too. It’s hard for me to turn it off when I’m watching basketball because it’s work for me. So, I’ll study different things. Now that I’m returning to the Atlantic 10, my downtime has been spent to a certain extent studying the league, looking at teams and their tendencies – so I haven’t picked up too many books lately.
But I’m always trying to help myself understand how the world is changing, whether it’s the mental health issues that our players are going through potentially, figuring out different ways to help maximize their performance through conditioning, or studying the analytics of the game.
CDD: Let’s shift to life in the Ocean State. What do you like about it so far and what did you know about Rhode Island previously?
KJ: I honestly didn’t know too much about it. I’d heard of Newport, Narragansett and the waterfront and was familiar with the great basketball programs that were here having traveled here a couple of times with La Salle and being in the region and recruiting regional talent while at other schools. But actually diving into the Rhode Island community and Kingston community specifically and the surrounding areas – it’s been a great transition. I know the wintertime hasn’t hit yet but getting here in April as the weather began to change and through the summer… you see why people will travel here from Florida to spend their summers.
The weather is nice, the people are friendly and knowledgeable. I’ve gotten the priorities together.
Beat Providence at the end of the day.
URI fans love their basketball. You want to work at a place where the fanbase takes pride in what you do.
— Rhody MBB (@RhodyMBB) April 6, 2022
CDD: When you discussed the opportunity with Archie, what is the vision he set forth and what did he communicate to you that was compelling about URI being a good fit right now?
KJ: Knowing Archie and studying him through the years, you know that he’s a development coach. And that’s what I pride myself in based on my background and what attracted me to coaching in the first place. A desire to help people. I like to help players to maximize their potential. I believe that’s what he does. It’s more than just show up at the game and figure out how to win that game. It’s a total development of the player: mind, body, and soul.
He doesn’t put limitations on what we achieve. We share that mentality. We’re here to be as good as we can be. Whatever that ends up being each year is going to be based off the amount of work that we put into it. He wants to win and win big. There isn’t a limitation where that will stop. We speak the same language with that, and I believe in how he wants to build it. He wants to build it with players who love to play the game, who have a strong foundation that is built through development, and figuring out how to maximize each individual’s abilities which will help us maximize team performance.
CDD: What aspect of player development do you most enjoy? Is it the mental aspect?
KJ: It’s confidence. Basketball is a game about confidence. By its nature it’s a game of mistakes in that if you have an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3-to-1 that’s great, but that one is still a mistake. If you’re shooting 40% from three, you’re missing 6 out of 10 and still considered a great shooter. Helping guys figure out how to battle through adversity. The ability to overcome it is one of the greatest challenges we face in our lives.
— Kenny Johnson “BBall Coach” (@kjrelentless) July 13, 2022
Basketball emulates the different things we have to go through in life. It’s a team sport. If you’re going to have success you need to learn to deal with different personalities and mesh them together as you battle for a common goal. You’re going to have to be a great communicator, figure out how to communicate with different people from different backgrounds. And you’re going to have to push yourself to fatigue. The best teams I’ve been around have the same philosophy, “When you’re tired, your opponent is exhausted.” So, learning how to be comfortable while being uncomfortable.
Figuring out and mastering those things is what truly allows you to achieve at a high level – sometimes higher than you ever thought possible.
CDD: I know you’ve been on new staffs in the past. How is this opportunity similar, how is it unique, having been around the track a few times before?
KJ: I love this staff. I love the way Coach Miller has developed this staff, you can see the vision. He was able to retain Ryan (McCloskey) and AC (Austin Carroll) who have been with the staff but he had previous relationships with them.
Ryan I like to call the MVP, he wears so many different hats. He’s helped to bridge that gap with administration, compliance, the academic team, and helping the players transition. We had to bring in so many new guys he’s been a steadying force with that.
Benny Sander has worked with Archie before for many years. He’s the CEO of our program. He’s been able to jump in and handle the different complexities and changing world of college basketball.
AC is someone who has a great understanding of the New England area in its totality. He gives us a great jumpstart in recruiting. And he knows Archie so he’s been able to work greatly with the skill development and speaking the right language as we start to implement some of our system. He has great energy and relationships as well.
Coach Woodward, the NY region is going to be vital to our recruiting success… and he’s getting us started on the right foot in that area. And his mind of a point guard is another valuable thing to have in your midst.
The timing of the pin down screen made this possible and the poor help side defender hugged up. But it really forced that defender to make a decision. Jamming the passer is a great solution to disrupting timing. Deflections beat good offense. https://t.co/IdK6LJvHNz
— Kenny Johnson “BBall Coach” (@kjrelentless) July 13, 2022
And Christian Cunningham coming in as our Player Development guy and the vast experience he’s had. Another younger guy with great relationships. Another point guard.
Understanding and seeing everyone’s specific purpose. Personalities – everyone has been pulling in a certain direction. Even recruiting, we have point men on recruits — but we all recruit together. We recruit as a family. If I’m recruiting a guy, our entire staff knows the player, his family, what would be needed to help transition if they decide to join our program. We meet regularly, we all understand what our mission is and it’s helping us pull in the right direction and hopefully transition this program fast.
CDD: The staff is being very intentional in roster assembly not just collecting talent. What are your thoughts about this process and the first group of guys coming in?
KJ: We want guys who love basketball. And guys who take pride in playing for something greater than themselves. I know that a phrase people use a lot, but that’s something we truly have. The players who have joined in with us that are starting here now this fall… they came to play at Rhode Island. They’re going to enjoy the experience of playing in front of Rhode Island fans. They’re going to enjoy the challenges of being developed by our coaching staff.
And then you want skill. Guys who can dribble, pass, and shoot. It sounds funny but in today’s game it’s something that’s valuable. You want to work to develop skill but you also want guys that are coming in with a solid foundation that you can add to… They all have different experiences we can assemble as we take on this next mission. They’re pulling for each other. You can see it in multiple places (practices, locker room, community service, study hall, strength and conditioning) and that’s important. When you have that as your foundation that will transfer to success. As we all know, we’ll be challenged in the A10. We have a competitive schedule. It will be easy for people to try to pull you apart, so we need a group that will be able to bond together.
CDD: We talked about dribble, pass, and shoot… but defensively, are you looking for grit? That can be more difficult to see in circuits where defense isn’t always prioritized?
KJ: Absolutely. A part of that is recruiting people who love to win. If you can identify year-round winners, people accustomed to winning. There’s a reason why. Typically, you’re going to have to defend the ball at a high level to win – you can’t outscore everybody. We’re going to be a hard team to play. Defense is non-negotiable in our program. We’ll be a well-trained, well-conditioned, physical basketball program.
CDD: Perfect transition to this last roster assembly, recruiting question… As college basketball’s landscape has changed, does that change your approach? Or do you keep your compass set on the attributes you’re looking for and have confidence that these types of guys won’t be as swayed by external factors in the college landscape?
KJ: Obviously, things have changed on the national scale but I believe if you stick to your core values you will attract the right types of players and families. And that’s what we’re focused on. In recruiting, the best answer you can get is “Yes.” But the next best answer you can get is “No.” Understanding why you can’t get certain players helps you to zero in on the types of players you’re looking for at the end of the day. You try to make sure you don’t get the wrong players.
A great coach taught me long ago that if you miss out on a player that was a good fit, he might beat you twice a year, maybe three times. But if you get the wrong player who commits to you, that player is going to kick your butt 32 times a year. So, it’s about finding the right fit to what you’re trying to get accomplished and staying strong to your core values.
These players that we’re recruiting can be successful at many different programs. But not everyone can be a part of what we’re doing… and you want players that want to be with you as much as you want them to be here.
CDD: What are your thoughts on what you’ve seen from the squad, collectively, so far?
KJ: Hungry group. It’s new for everyone. The returnees made the choice to buy-in to a new situation. They represent their university and have a comfort with that but it’s a totally new environment. Everyone else is having their fresh start – and coming together. It’s been a fast-paced time.
A ton of shooting. A ton of conditioning. They did a great job in the classroom. Great job in strength and conditioning. Implementation of the system in the summer was slower; it was more centrally focused on the players and developing their skills and helping them to lay the foundation for what we’ll get into here in the fall.
Now, we want to get them off to a great start academically. And, on the court, at a faster pace now that the guys understand what we expect and what we’re trying to do.
— Kenny Johnson “BBall Coach” (@kjrelentless) July 14, 2022
I’m excited for the opportunity. I’m appreciative of the administration. I’ve had a great time getting to know Thorr specifically, I’m indebted to Coach Miller for affording me the opportunity, and I’m excited to be at a place that loves basketball.
I’m excited to get to the Ryan Center and hopefully have it sold out for many, many games. I’m excited for them to see the hard work of players come to fruition and I believe we’re going to build something that our fans will be proud of.
We’re not taking any shortcuts as we look toward building a sustainable winner.
Chris DiSano, is an Atlantic 10 analyst and writer. He has served as the host of A-10 Live! at Men’s Basketball Media Day and founded the former College Chalktalk. DiSano, who was named NBC Sports top Atlantic 10 basketball follow on Twitter for five straight years, can be found on Twitter at @CDiSano44