Trent Johnson is ready for a big year. As he enters his fourth season at the helm in Fort Worth, recent history suggests that this might be his most successful year yet as TCU's head coach. In Johnson's previous three head coaching stops, he has a 0.634 winning percentage with two trips to the NIT and one to the NCAA Tournament in his fourth season. Let's take a look at why Johnson appears to be on the same track at TCU.
To understand the full context of Johnson's fourth-year success, we have to go all the way back to 1999. Johnson had just finished his third season as an assistant coach under Mike Montgomery at Stanford when he was hired to become the head coach at Nevada. He was inheriting a Wolfpack team that had regressed in three consecutive seasons and had finished the 1998-1999 season with an 8-18 record. Johnson then increased Nevada's win total in five consecutive seasons. His fourth year at the helm was his most successful at that point, as he led the Wolfpack to an 18-14 record and a trip to the NIT, the school's first postseason appearance in five years.
Johnson would then take Nevada to the Sweet 16 in 2004, finishing the season with a 25-9 record, earning him an offer to replace Mike Montgomery at Stanford - the same coach that Johnson served under before taking over at Nevada. With the opportunity to both earn a pay raise and coach at a power conference program, Johnson accepted. Unlike at Nevada, Johnson was inheriting a Stanford team that had finished 30-2 the year before, with a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Following the season, Montgomery left Stanford to become the head coach of the Golden State Warriors in the NBA.
Johnson posted win totals of 18, 16, and 18 in his first three seasons with the Cardinal, before taking Stanford to the Sweet 16 on the heels of a 28-8 finish in his fourth year. His accomplishments were so successful that Johnson was offered a five-year contract to become the head coach at LSU for about $1.2 million per season - double what he was making at Stanford. Johnson accepted, and took over a Tigers team that had regressed in three consecutive seasons, leading to then-head coach John Brady being fired in the middle of the 2007-2008 season.
Johnson led a group made up of mostly Brady's players to a 27-8 record and another trip to the NCAA Tournament. His second and third years at LSU were a bit tougher as his teams posted 11-win seasons in both the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons. However, in his fourth season, the Tigers rebounded to an 18-14 year that included a trip to the NIT. Johnson experienced success in his fourth season at his third consecutive school.
Following his success at LSU in 2012, Johnson left Baton Rouge to become the head coach at TCU. He reportedly signed a six-year contract that featured a base salary of $1.5 million plus bonus and incentive packages that push his total salary closer to $2 million a year. Johnson's first two seasons in Fort Worth saw the beginning of a major transitional period as TCU moved from the Mountain West Conference to the Big 12 Conference. Last year, his team turned a corner, doubling its number of wins from a year before. Now Johnson enters his fourth year at TCU, looking to ride the momentum surrounding the program and continue his fourth year success.
It certainly isn't a coincidence that Trent Johnson's fourth season has been his most successful at three different programs. In fact, through the course of college basketball history, the majority of prominent coaches begin to see success in their fourth seasons. Why is this?
The answer to that question is quite simple - recruiting. When a coach takes over a program, he is inheriting a roster constructed and adjusted to fit the coaching style and philosophy of his predecessor. As is often times the case, including at Trent Johnson's four schools, a coach's first year is a transitional period in which he begins to implement his style of play upon a roster of players that may or may not mold to that style. With Johnson, he found immediate success at Stanford and LSU, but that wasn't the case at Nevada and TCU.
Often times a coach's second season sees a dip in production, as two full recruiting cycles creates a roster divided between players from two different coaching staffs. This was certainly the case with Johnson at each of his four coaching stops. The third season is typically a bit better, as a coach has almost a complete roster of players that he recruited to fit his system. Then, the all-important fourth season is usually the first season that a coach has a roster made up 100% of players that he recruited and molded to fit his style of play. As the graph below illustrates, Johnson has seen an increase in win total from his second to his third and from this third to his fourth season at each of his previous three schools. Winning 19 or more games at TCU this season would continue that trend.
This phenomenon extends far beyond Trent Johnson. Dating back to 1948, six of the last seven TCU head coaches to last at least four years have seen their best season occur during their fourth year at the helm. Neil Dougherty is the lone coach in that span to see a dip in winning percentage in his fourth season.
This is an excellent demonstration of just how important recruiting is in college basketball. Each coach and each system is unique, and a coach must find the right players to fit his system. By a coach's fourth season, he not only has a roster full of players that he recruited, but he also has several seniors that should be familiar with his system and style of play. This has been the case at each of Johnson's three previous stops.
Not only have Johnson's players fit his system well, but many of them have gone on to find success at the professional level. In his 16 seasons as a head coach, Johnson has seen 15 of his players move on to the NBA. Five of those 16 - Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez, Kirk Snyder, Jason Collins, and Brevin Knight - were selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. Most recently, Kyan Anderson signed with a professional team in Belgium and Trey Zeigler continues to pursue a spot on an NBA roster.
Another important detail to note is that Trent Johnson has excelled at building his assistant coaching staffs. Only four active coaches - Larry Brown, Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, and Mike Krzyzewski - have longer coaching trees than Trent Johnson. Five of his former assistants have moved on to become head coaches at the Division I level.
Johnson's staff at TCU is no different. Former Indiana Pacer Brent Scott has served under Johnson for the last eight seasons. Kwanza Johnson is a veteran assistant with over 16 years of experience in college basketball. Chris Tifft is a former junior college head coach that excels in recruiting. Matt Read is another juco alum with extensive knowledge about recruiting. And finally, Rob Wright is a veteran high school coach that serves as a key liaison between TCU and its recruits. In total, Johnson's current staff has seen 33 different players advance to the NBA.
There is one final point that needs to be made about Johnson's fourth season at TCU. Only once in his entire collegiate coaching career, either as an assistant or as a head coach, has Johnson remained at one school for longer than four seasons. As was discussed above, Johnson coached at Nevada for five seasons prior to leaving for Stanford. In his two most recent stops, Johnson left after a successful fourth season for a bigger paycheck at a bigger program.
In all likelihood, this won't be the case at TCU. Johnson has a fifth and a sixth year remaining on his current contract. Although he did have one year remaining on his contract at LSU, and he did leave Nevada just weeks after signing a five-year extension, neither of those two schools were offering Johnson the kind of contract that he has at TCU. Additionally, Johnson has stated on several occasions that it is his preference to remain in Fort Worth for the long haul. As you may remember, he turned down an offer from Arizona State during the offseason.
With Johnson comfortably rooted in Fort Worth for the foreseeable future, he will have an excellent opportunity to build upon his already impressive coaching record. Johnson was able to take Nevada, Stanford, and LSU to both the NIT and NCAA Tournaments during his stops there. He advanced all the way to the Sweet 16 with both Nevada and Stanford. Johnson also brought home Coach of the Year honors in the Western Athletic Conference, Pac-10 Conference, and Southeastern Conference. With Trent Johnson at the helm, continued successes both on the recruiting trail and on the court could have TCU poised to make their own run at a postseason tournament sooner rather than later.