Alumnus Preparing for the Big Dance

Posted on March 18th, 2009 by

Aaron Johnston ‘96 on the sidelines during the Summit League Tournament. (Photo courtesy of SDSU Athletics)

Aaron Johnston ‘96 on the sidelines during the Summit League Tournament. (Photo courtesy of SDSU Athletics)

Aaron Johnston ‘96 cutting down the net after his team won the Summit League Tournament. (Photo courtesy of SDSU Athletics)

Aaron Johnston ‘96 cutting down the net after his team won the Summit League Tournament. (Photo courtesy of SDSU Athletics)

The Gustavus Adolphus College men’s and women’s basketball teams might have seen their seasons come to a close in February, but there is at least one Gustavus alumnus who is still very much a part of March Madness.

Aaron Johnston, a 1996 alumnus of the College, is the head coach of the South Dakota State University (SDSU) women’s basketball team. In their first year of eligibility for the Division I NCAA Tournament, the Jackrabbits compiled a 31-2 record and earned the automatic berth to the “big dance” out of the Summit League.

The Jackrabbits received a number seven seed and will face tenth seeded Texas Christian University in a first round game at 6 p.m. Sunday, March 22 in Lubbock, Texas.

“We really just started off so well and beat some really good teams this year,” Johnston said. “I knew if we could get through December without any hiccups that we’d be on our way to a pretty special season.”

The Jackrabbits had a strong resume leading up to the selection of the 64 teams in the NCAA Tournament, not only because they won 31 of 33 games, but because they scheduled and beat some teams from power conferences like the Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-10.

SDSU went 3-0 against Big Ten teams including wins over the University of Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin. They also won non-conference games against Missouri and Oregon.

“This team just hasn’t had any letdowns, which has been pretty amazing,” Johnston said.

Johnston is in his ninth season at the helm of the SDSU program and his career record of 224-64 (.777) is impressive to say the least. During his first four full seasons as head coach, Johnston led the Jackrabbits to three consecutive NCAA Division II Elite Eight appearances, including the first national championship in the program’s history during the 2002-03 season.

Following the 2003-04 season, Johnston and SDSU opted to make the move to Division I, which left the program ineligible for postseason play during the last four years due to NCAA rules. In the program’s first five years of playing in Division I, Johnston has led the Jackrabbits to records of 21-7, 19-9, 25-6, 23-7 and now 31-2.

Johnston’s first coaching experience came at Gustavus when he served as a student assistant for two years under current men’s basketball head coach Mark Hanson. Johnston had played for the men’s team his first two years, but opted to move to the bench his junior year.

“Getting me off the active roster was probably one of the best moves [Hanson] ever made,” Johnston joked. “Anybody who had the chance to watch me play knew my future wasn’t in playing basketball, but I wanted to stay involved in the game so I knew my junior year at Gustavus that I wanted to get into coaching.”

After graduating from Gustavus with a degree in health and physical education, Johnston served one year as an assistant coach at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, N.D., before moving on to SDSU as a graduate assistant for the Jackrabbit men’s basketball team.

During the 1999-2000 season when Johnston was an assistant coach for the women’s team, then-head coach Nancy Neiber took a leave of absence late in the season and Johnston was named the interim head coach. The interim label was then removed during the summer of 2000 when Neiber officially retired.

Johnston’s success has largely been built through recruiting efforts in South Dakota and Minnesota. Nobody perhaps helped raise the visibility of the program more than St. Peter native Megan Vogel, a 2007 graduate of SDSU. Vogel led the Jackrabbits to a 25-6 record her senior year and was the 19th overall pick in the 2007 WNBA draft by the Washington Mystics.

This year’s team has six players from South Dakota, five from Minnesota, two from Wisconsin, and one from Iowa.

“The big thing is that we really try to find great people rather than find great players, which is something that I’ve taken with me from my time at Gustavus,” Johnston said. “Our team does well academically and they support each other well.”


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin


One Comment

  1. […] Click here to read a story on Johnston from last year when the Jackrabbits finished the season ranked No. 19 in the final USA Today/ESPN coaches poll with a record of 32-3. […]