Aaron Johnston is in his 16th season as South Dakota State’s coach this year. He is the most winning coach in program history, going into the season with a 365-126 record. Under Johnston, the Jackrabbits have been to the NCAA Tournament six times and have made three WNIT appearances since entering Division I in 2004-2005. He has been Summit League coach of the year four times. In Division II, Johnston guided SDSU to a National Championship win in 2003.
Johnston’s teams are also known for their high academic achievements, finishing no worse than third among Division I programs in the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s Academic Top 25 Team Honor Roll for seven of the past 10 seasons, and leading all divisions of women’s basketball in team GPA four times.
The longtime coach and Midwest native and his wife have three children.
Sue Favor: You have grown a mid-major powerhouse in the Midwest. How are you keeping a relatively low profile doing big things?
Aaron Johnston: The low profile part is an extension of the natural Midwestern humility. We’re not out there looking to get our names on a neon sign, or pushing for national recognition. We do it with a lot of local players – many of them from South Dakota, or close by. We’re not necessarily looking to get top 25 recruits; we tend to do it with local players who are flying under the radar. We’ve got players who could play in the Big Ten, but didn’t always get recognition.
Sue Favor: What were your goals for the program coming in, and have you met them yet?
Aaron Johnston: In general, the overall goal at first was for consistent progress, not to make the Tournament. In 2008-2009 we went 32-3 and lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and we’ve made it back to that spot since then. But we haven’t been able to advance out of the first round. Our goal is to advance further in the postseason. It doesn’t matter what seed we are – what matters is what we do to prepare ourselves to play in the Tournament.
Sue Favor: What personifies South Dakota State basketball?
Aaron Johnston: The people. We spend an enormous amount of time developing people, helping them to progress, and building relationships. We value players overall, as people. We spend most of our time trying to develop people and making their time here a great experience. That approach has paid off with little roster turnover. People feel valued.
Sue Favor: Your biography refers to you as a soft-spoken coach. What does that mean?
Aaron Johnston: I think our players would describe me very differently than our SID. The players would say I’m very demanding and hold high expectations for them both on and off the floor. I try to listen. I’m not the type of person to be running up and down the sidelines clapping my hands. If I think someone can run faster, I’ll tell them.
Sue Favor: You’ve spent 16 years at SDSU. Was that by design? Do you plan to coach anywhere else?
Aaron Johnston: It’s been great here. My wife and I have three young kids, ages 4, 3 and 1 1/2, and the Midwest is a great place for us as a family. I don’t have an updated resume on my computer. I really like being a Jackrabbit. You never know, though – they might want someone else at some point. But we have great fans, a great staff, and there are great people on the team.
Sue Favor: What do you love about basketball and about coaching?
Aaron Johnston: The thing that keeps me coaching and motivates me is trying to help someone get to their full potential. We all need someone to challenge and motivate us. Our job as coaches is to make students better. We’ve got great alumni in careers and with families. After graduation the relationships with them don’t end, they just change.
Sue Favor: What do you want your legacy to be?
Aaron Johnston: I never even really think about that. I’ve got a long way to go before I start to think about that. We’ve done a lot to grow women’s basketball here, and the students feel like they’re a part of something special.
Sue Favor: What was the transition from Division II to Division I like?
Aaron Johnston: We were really good in Division II, and we won the National Championship. We had the (SDSU) first and second-best players of all time on the team at that point. We had a lot of obstacles off the court to deal with, but on the court it went as smoothly as it could go.
Sue Favor: What’s the most important thing to convey to your athletes?
Aaron Johnston: Other than the importance of relationships, to think highly of themselves and what they can accomplish on the court and in school.