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Along for the Ride

After Rough Transition, Johnson Has Proven a Loyal and Capable Assistant Under Braswell the Last Five Years

March 15, 2001|MIKE BRESNAHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — It wasn't really a chat or conversation, evidenced by the fact that Bobby Braswell was yelling at the top of his lungs.

Nor could it be called a debate or argument, inferring that two people were mutually exchanging ideas.

It was more like a soliloquy, with Braswell ranting and raving about the importance of loyalty and trust, repeatedly lifting his hands off the steering wheel to hammer home a point.

The passenger in the car, Michael Johnson, was worried. Make that scared. His life was about to change. And this was only his first day under his new boss.

Johnson had been at Cal State Northridge for four years, making steady progress as a men's basketball assistant coach under Pete Cassidy.

But Cassidy was fired in 1996. His replacement, Braswell, was fiery, emotional and, at this particular moment, very unhappy.

Braswell was told by former Northridge athletic director Paul Bubb that Johnson should be kept as an assistant. It didn't sit well with Braswell, who wanted to bring in his own people.

Braswell let Johnson know as much while driving him home on the night of April 30, 1996.

Braswell told Johnson he had one year to prove himself. That was all. Don't cheat while recruiting, he said. Don't question how I run things. And no matter what, be loyal to me.

Five years later, as the Matadors prepare to play Kansas on Friday in their first trip to the NCAA tournament, Johnson is still on staff.

"The best first decision I made on this job was keeping Mike on," Braswell said. "He served as a bridge between the former players and the new players. He knew more things about this campus than I did. He was able to give me a rundown on everybody's strengths and weaknesses."

Despite quickly forming a kinship with the new coach, Johnson sweated out his first year under Braswell.

"As close as we became, I was always worried," he said. "I was always wondering if I was recruiting hard enough, if I was working hard enough. I was hearing rumors in February and March [of 1997] that I was going to be released."

He wasn't. In fact, he was promoted to associate head coach in 1998.

Johnson, 32, coaches the post players, is in charge of recruiting and, like Braswell, gets fired up easily. He also hammers home his points, though in a more literal sense.

At halftime of a game against Hawaii in December, Johnson was disgusted at the team's lackadaisical effort and punched a chalkboard hard enough to break his right hand.

"It was awful," Johnson said. "I knew it was broken. It was so disfigured. The players knew and they felt bad. They walked by during every timeout and kind of looked at it. They felt like it was their fault because they had been playing so poorly."

The Matadors (22-9) have won 16 of 20 games since Johnson's outburst and are playing their first-round game in Dayton, Ohio, a few miles from Johnson's hometown.

"It's been the most chaotic 24 hours of my life," Johnson said Tuesday. "Everyone needs tickets. I've been getting phone calls from people I haven't seen since high school graduation in 1987. I'm trying to drum up tickets as we speak."

Johnson, an adequate high school player in Ohio, attended Purdue because it was one of the top basketball programs in the nation. He knew he wouldn't be able to play Division I, but he felt the urge to be part of a top-notch program.

He earned a spot as team manager his freshman year by persistently phoning the graduate assistant coach at the time--Steve Lavin. Johnson was also team manager as a sophomore and became an undergraduate assistant his junior and senior years, making an impact by developing a statistical software program for the Boilermakers.

Lavin was again helpful as Johnson prepared to graduate in 1991, introducing Johnson to Cassidy. Johnson worked one of Cassidy's summer camps, struck up a relationship with Cassidy and was hired as a part-time coach at Northridge.

"There was a lot of excitement at the time," Johnson said. "They had just gone Division I. They had a decent team. There were pictures of an arena that was going to be built. It was a good opportunity."

Within a few weeks, Johnson was promoted to full-time assistant when his predecessor left to take another job. The experience was great for Johnson, who was one of the youngest full-time assistants in the nation, but the money could have been better. He was making about $400 a month.

"I was living on peanut butter and pinto beans," he said. "I couldn't wait for road trips so I could get some decent meals."

It wasn't all bad.

He met his future wife, the former Molly McLaughlin, at Northridge. Molly, a former Northridge volleyball player whose parents live a few miles outside Dayton, noticed Johnson's Ohio license plate and struck up a conversation. They have two sons, Michael, 2, and Mason, seven months.

Johnson smiles at the mention of the infamous car ride with Braswell five years ago.

So does Braswell.

"He's been absolutely loyal to me," Braswell said. "He's my right-hand guy."

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