Johnson Committed To Constant ImprovementBy Joanne Norell
Editor’s Note: In 2018, five University of Notre Dame head coaches began preparations for their first seasons leading their respective programs: Chad Riley (men’s soccer), Nate Norman (women’s soccer), Alison Silverio (women’s tennis), Mike Johnson (volleyball) and Matt Sparks (cross country/track and field). This is the fourth of a five-part series examining the last year in the life of those coaches and their outlook now that they’ve navigated a year of competition in the shadow of the Golden Dome.
Mike Johnson didn’t expect to be here 13 months ago.
An associate head coach under former Irish volleyball head coach Jim McLaughlin, Johnson had every reason to believe in the status quo. McLaughlin was just three years into his tenure, piloting a program turn-around that projected upward.
But life has a way of intervening.
When McLaughlin made the decision to resign last June due to severe back pain, Johnson was a natural successor. A longtime student of McLaughlin’s and already deeply embedded in the system he was in the midst of installing, Johnson took over as the program’s sixth head coach on July 1, 2018.
It wasn’t part of the plan, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t ready.
“I think you’re always preparing,” Johnson said. “I think you’re always working to get better, and you’re always working to grow. So was I prepared? I think so. … It’s sort of like when you’re in a big game, and something happens. ‘Well, here we are, and let’s stay with what we got. This is where we are going to make the best of it and let’s do everything we can for these kids.’”
Having learned the coaching trade as a student and, eventually, an assistant under McLaughlin at the University of Washington, Johnson had built the foundation of a solid career on his own — most recently as the head coach at Xavier — before answering his former mentor’s call to join him at Notre Dame.
The answer was an easy one.
“If you would ask me when I first got into coaching, ‘Where would you want to coach?’ I would have told you two schools and one of them was Notre Dame,” Johnson said. “I don’t know why I thought that then. If I had to look back and guess, to me is that is the challenge: ‘Can you be the very best in everything you do?’ And I think that motivated me. I was at Xavier, and I got a call from Jim about coming to Notre Dame, and I was thankful for the opportunity.”
“If you would ask me when I first got into coaching, ‘Where would you want to coach?’ I would have told you two schools and one of them was Notre Dame."
Prior to joining the Irish staff in 2015, Johnson spent five successful seasons at Xavier, where his Musketeers recorded four straight 20-plus-win seasons. Prior to his stint in Cincinnati, he spent a year at the head of the program at Austin Peay and three years as an assistant at Cal Poly, where he was named one of the country’s up-and-coming volleyball coaches under 30 by the American Volleyball Coaches Association after the 2008 season.
Now four years removed from that initial call, one can see Johnson’s reputation is a deserved one, even as injuries plagued the Irish at times during his first head coaching season. Taken as a whole, Notre Dame has recorded three straight winning seasons with Johnson on staff — returning to the NCAA tournament in 2017 — after suffering three seasons of single-digit wins in the previous three years.
Johnson saw two players — senior Ryann DeJarld and freshman Charley Niego — earn AVCA Honorable Mention All-American and All-East Coast Region honors. Both were joined by Syndey Bent, Zoe Nunez and Jemma Yeadon in earning Second Team All-ACC accolades.
DeJarld, who closed her career as Notre Dame’s all-time digs leader, also became the first player in program history to be named ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
Given that his squad was rarely at full strength last season, though, Johnson measures success in less tangible — but no less meaningful — terms.
“There was is a trust placed in me and in our staff, by the administration and by the players themselves, to really say, ‘OK, we’re going to buy in. Lead us and help us be the very best we can become,’” Johnson said. “I appreciate that. There is a sense from our end, that we’ve got to give this group everything it needs to help us reach our goals.”
“I look at how we played, especially, at the end of the season, and we were aggressive; we were assertive; we continued to believe; we went for it. I really look at those characteristics in the way that we played and I really value it. I think if we can continue to play with that aggressive mentality … we could be very good.”
Indeed, Johnson doesn’t want to just be good. His entire motivation for joining McLaughlin at Notre Dame was the potential to reach greatness.
That challenge is what pulls him to this place, this job. His perpetual quest for improvement — both personal and professional — is evident, and he endeavors to attract likeminded student-athletes in pursuit of the mission.
“It’s perhaps the greatest responsibility we have, to bring in people to the university who reflect the values of this university,” Johnson said. “More than anything, I want recruits to know who we are. I don’t sugarcoat it. I’m going to tell them, ‘Here’s how hard it can be. It’s going to be harder here to be the very best you can be athletically and academically.’ And at Notre Dame, you have to live your life in such a fashion that brings pride to the university. It’s not like that everywhere. And I tell kids that I want them to know it. I hope our recruits know this place actually isn’t for everyone. I want to find people who are right for us.
“Anyone will tell you they want to be the best. Everyone wants to be great. But when you think about what it really takes to be great, and you think about all the steps and the sacrifices and the commitment that it takes, now you’ve got to start thinking, ‘Do I really want that?’ We want our kids to know what that looks like.”
By all accounts, it seems to be a message his team has heard loud and clear. More than anything, it was that commitment to excellence that struck Johnson most after assuming head coaching duties.
That, he believes, will result in Notre Dame’s future success as the Irish build upon the foundation set by McLaughlin and carried on by Johnson.
“I’d say the thing that I’m always most proud of is the commitment that our players made to become great,” Johnson said. “I saw a commitment from everyone … to be the very best they can become. I see it right now. I’m not with them (at summer workouts). But I hear about the way they’re preparing on their own. I hear about the work they’re doing in the weight room in the summer; I hear about the work they’re doing on their own in the summer, and I’m not controlling that. That’s all them.
“We’re always evolving, always improving, and if we can just keep doing that, that’s how we’re going to be successful.”