June 23, 2018
By John Heisler
Mike Johnson sat wide-eyed in the East Gym of Hec Edmundson Pavilion at the University of Washington in 2001.
The 20-year-old junior had come to take in a practice conducted by newly hired Husky women’s volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin.
Johnson thought he knew a fair amount about the game of volleyball, having grown up on the northeast side of the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
“Volleyball is an enormous sport in Hawaii,” he says. “When you grow up there the University of Hawaii is your team–all their games are televised. I have memories of watching those as a kid.”
One of McLaughlin’s assistant coaches came to scout the men’s club team to see if Johnson or some of the other male players might qualify to practice against his women’s squad.
“Then I would go with a couple other guys to Jim’s practices, and I just watched and learned,” says Johnson.
“When you grow up in a place that reveres volleyball, you really think you know the game.
“I spent about 10 minutes around Jim and realized, ‘Boy, I don’t know much at all.’
“I’m just a kid at this point, but I already recognized, ‘Whoa, this is different.’”
That initial connection in Seattle marked the start of an ongoing, evolving relationship that eventually brought both men to the University of Notre Dame.
McLaughlin made such a remarkable impact on the young chemical engineering major that Johnson began rethinking his career path, now intrigued by the idea of teaching and coaching.
Johnson’s regard for McLaughlin’s skill as a coach prompted him to walk away from a successful six-year head coaching career to work for McLaughlin again as Irish associate head coach beginning in 2015.
The link came full circle earlier this month when, after three seasons as Irish head coach, McLaughlin resigned to deal with back problems and Johnson was named Notre Dame’s sixth volleyball coach.
The bond between the two men remains so strong Johnson believes this has a chance to become one of the more seamless coaching transitions in Notre Dame history.
The impact created by those practices Johnson viewed in Seattle eventually prompted Johnson to go to McLaughlin to learn what coaching involved.
“He took me to lunch one day and all we did was talk coaching,” says Johnson. “It was my first real entry into what coaching was really about. I’ve always loved teaching. I actually quit playing baseball in high school so I could coach my brother’s baseball team when I was 16.
“I really wanted to coach more than I wanted to play. I just loved to do it, loved to teach. That’s always driven me.”
Timing proved perfect. McLaughlin had an opening and hired Johnson to coach with him at Washington in 2004 after graduation.
Says Johnson, “He said to me, ‘Look, I know what I want to do. I want good people that are going to work hard.’
“I really believe being successful is about the conditions you’re in, it’s about the mentors that you have and it’s about how hard you’re willing to work to go get it.
“In Hawaii the game was so popular and we all loved playing it. But Jim was different because he approached the game like a science. He talked to me about the principles of motor learning and biomechanics–and everything was based on facts rather than feelings. He had studied how the brain works and how to accelerate learning and the transfer to game day.
“It was at that point that I realized I had grown up with the game, but there was so much more to it that I had to learn. That lit a fire for me. I have always been motivated by teaching and helping others. But I knew then that if I had learned what this guy was showing me, we could go on to help people at the highest level.
“So I was just very fortunate. I had a wonderful mentor very early.”
After a season with the Huskies—capped by an NCAA Final Four appearance–Johnson left to be an assistant at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Little did he know it would be more than a decade before he would cross paths again with McLaughlin.
In the meantime, Johnson became all about building a reservoir of coaching knowledge.
“Jim had introduced me to Jon Stevenson, the head coach at Cal Poly,” Johnson says. “He wanted to do things the same way we were doing them at Washington.
“Jon and Jim on a personal level couldn’t have been any more different, but they were both really good at what they did.
“Jim really taught me–we would sit down in hotel rooms and he would show me Xs and Os in diagrams. He taught me how to teach it.
“Jon was different. He kind of said, ‘You know what you’re doing. Here you go.’ I was 25 years old. Jon trusted me to run the practices, write the practices, run the scouting reports.
“Jon would go, ‘Hey, you got practice today. Will you do it?’ I would script it.
I would go, ‘Here is what I’m thinking.’ He would say, ‘Just present to the team what we’re doing, and then we’ll coach it together.’
“Jon gave me a ton of freedom, and so that prepared me at a pretty young age, in a different way, to become a head coach.”
After three seasons at Cal Poly (two league titles and two NCAA Championship appearances), Johnson took the head coaching job at Austin Peay in 2009 at age 28.
“There is always something special about your very first team, your very first time in that arena,” says Johnson. “So I truly loved that team. We had the best season they’d had at Austin Peay in 17 years, and it was a great joy of mine watching that team make the NCAA tournament.
“I didn’t have any plans to leave after a year, but I had always kind of said Xavier was a place where you could get it done.”
Ironically, Johnson was hired as the Musketeers’ head coach by Xavier athletics director Mike Bobinski, a former Notre Dame baseball player, ticket manager and associate athletics business manager.
“We had a team that first year (2010) that wasn’t picked to finish so well, but we ended up second (in the Atlantic 10 Conference) with that group.
“I learned this from Jim a long time ago–it’s not how big you are, it’s how great you play the game. If you’re good enough, you’re big enough.
“At one point our tallest outside hitter was 5-9, our next tallest one was 5-8 and we started a right-side hitter that was 5-7. We had these kids with tremendous hearts. They played the game hard.”
The summer after Johnson’s third season in Cincinnati, Xavier moved into the Big East Conference.
“Now we’re in deeper water, which is great. But everyone else wanted to make it about the new league. I said, ‘Look, our goal in this league is to be the very best team, players and people we can become. So why are we spending energy on this? Why don’t we just get good?’”
After two seasons in the Big East (and 40 combined wins) Johnson’s dreams continued.
“You have those ideas–if you can coach anywhere, where you want to be, just thoughts in your head, dreams really.
“I had three schools on my list for some period of time, and one of them was Notre Dame. I can’t even put into words exactly why I thought that. I didn’t have any relationship to the university. But I just always said, ‘Notre Dame.’ Notre Dame was always a dream job for me. It really was.”
Johnson’s combined success at Austin Peay and Xavier served as a recommendation to decision-makers at Notre Dame when the Irish job opened in 2015—and he emerged as a candidate for the position.
Says Johnson, “Then one day Jim called and said, ‘Hey, I need to talk to you.’ I’m thinking, ‘I wonder what that’s about?’
“So I called him, and he said, ‘I’m thinking of going to Notre Dame and I want you to come do it with me.’ I just thought, ‘Wow.’
“We were staying in a hotel because we were at the wedding of a friend of my wife.”
“I said to (his wife) Liz, ‘Jim is going to get the Notre Dame job. He wants us to go.’
She said, ‘Really?’
“My wife said, ‘Just think about this. You want to be the very best. Jim is one of the best in the world, isn’t he?’
“I said, ‘Yeah.’
“She said, ‘And you get to come in on the ground floor. You’re going to get to see a team and see all the steps it’s going to take to build this thing from the beginning.’
“She said, ‘Isn’t that powerful? You want to be the very best head coach in the country. Seems to me this is the way to do it.’
“I said, ‘Yeah, I know, it is.’ Women are always right.
“At one point, she said, ‘So hold on. You’re going to be a better coach. You’re going to understand better and be better prepared for the highest level. You’re going to be at the school you’ve always wanted to be at.’”
And so the Johnsons came to South Bend. And Mike realized almost immediately that in reconnecting with his mentor he had made the right decision.
Johnson recalls watching the Irish head coach do work on a white board—the same item he had viewed with intrigue at those practices back in Seattle–at an early Irish drill session that first season.
Says Johnson, “Jim is the very best. I wanted to learn from the very best, and I wanted to be at the place I’ve always wanted to be. That was why we were here at Notre Dame.
“Within two weeks of being here, it was just an explosion of ‘Oh, my goodness. I wish I knew this and that earlier because I could have helped those past players more.’”
Johnson loved the pace.
“Jim pushed me hard,” says Johnson. “I wanted him to. I love him for it. I thank him for it. He said, ‘You don’t push people you don’t think can do it.’”
Three years in South Bend saw McLaughlin, Johnson and the Irish return to the NCAA Championship last fall for the first time since 2012. Then came McLaughlin’s recent surprising decision.
“I knew he was hurting,” says Johnson. “I probably didn’t know the extent that his back was actually hurting. Jim is a tough guy so he wasn’t going to show it much in the gym. But there were days he had to sit in a chair during practice. I just knew he was in pain. I can’t know how much.
“There was a point where I started to wonder, ‘Boy, this is going to be hard for him.’”
Now it’s Johnson’s show to stage.
“If it’s up to me, where I would like to be 20 years from now?” asks Johnson. “I would like to be sitting right here running one of the premier volleyball programs in the country.
“I think Notre Dame has everything you need. I look at the way it prepares people for life, the value of the academics, just the power and the magic in the community itself.
“I tell recruits this: How many other schools in the country can you say ‘it’s’ and insert school name, and everyone gets it? You can say, ‘It’s Notre Dame,’ and everyone goes, ‘Well, yeah.’
“People have asked me, ‘How do you feel?’ On one hand I’m excited. This is where I’ve always wanted to be. On the other hand, with Jim, I love the man. He’s mentored me, guided me. I really want what’s best for him. So there are some mixed feelings.
“The greatest thing I feel more than anything else is just a tremendous sense of responsibility. I really believe we have the university to win at the highest level. I believe we have the people in place. I’m talking about on the team and in the department and around this school. It’s up to us now.
“We’ve got to build a volleyball team that represents the greatness of the university itself.
“Let’s go work and build this team. Let’s make this team great.”
Johnson’s pitch is a simple one.
“Everything that we’ve done as a team together, our principles, our methods, our mechanics, our core values, our systems, our methodology, our beliefs, the way we’re going to push them academically, the way we’re going to push this team, the way the expectations are high, the standards, all of that stuff—everything is the same.
“I said to the players, ‘Here is how that changes. At some point we’re going to say we’re ready to go win the national title. Let’s chase this thing. The standards are going to go up even higher. That’s how this changes.’
“But beyond that, we’re going to run the program the way we’ve run the program. I’m not Jim–I can’t be Jim. And he’s not me–he can’t be me.
“So I’m going to be me, and I’m going to do this the way we’re going to do this. But everything we’ve learned and the way we’ve run it, I wholeheartedly believe in.
“What I also know about Jim is he wants this thing to win and go on and succeed maybe more than anybody. It won’t be the same because he’s not here coaching every day, but he wants this team to win. On a personal level he wants our staff to be successful. And I know if the day comes that we win a national title, nobody will be happier than him.
“I believe if we make progress every single day, if we work toward becoming the very best we’re capable of becoming and we do that on a day‑to‑day basis and keep our focus on the things that really matter, we’re going to be successful.
“I really believe that.”
The left side of the short hallway leading from the Gate 9 Rosenthal Atrium of the Joyce Center into the Purcell Pavilion lower concourse showcases larger-than-life images of the three head coaches whose sports play regularly in Purcell Pavilion.
First on the left is Irish women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw.
Next is Irish men’s basketball coach Mike Brey.
Further down on the left, after a chart showing all the Notre Dame coaches in those sports and their years served, is McLaughlin.
Johnson understands Notre Dame’s marketing staff is likely to trade out McLaughlin’s image for his sometime soon.
“But this isn’t about me. At the end of the day it is about the players and who they want to become. We are here to help them get there. And when they do, we will celebrate them.”
His egoless approach is yet another reason to expect a status-quo approach to Notre Dame volleyball in 2018.
Johnson didn’t ask to become the Irish head coach in this manner.
“Jim is someone who has meant a lot to me for a number of years,” says Johnson. “He is godfather to my son. I hate to see him hurting.”
But, now that the job is his to own, Johnson expects to move Notre Dame forward—in the same manner McLaughlin took a 22-10 Irish team in 2017 back to the NCAA Championship last December.
“That’s what you do at Notre Dame,” Johnson says, with a nod to Arike Ogunbowale who expressed that same thought on live television after leading the Irish to the 2018 NCAA women’s basketball crown.
He referenced the NCAA titles won last spring by Irish teams in women’s basketball and fencing and a national runner-up finish in hockey in a call with returning Irish players the night before McLaughlin announced his decision to step away.
“This is a place where you should win at the very highest level. I told the team, ‘I hope you guys understand, the expectation at Notre Dame is you win the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference), you’re making deep runs in the (NCAA) tournament—and then at some point you’re going to the Final Four, at some point you’re winning the national title. Please understand that.’
“I said, ‘Look at what just happened. We had a week where fencing wins the national title, women’s basketball wins the national title, men’s hockey is in the national title game. That is back to back to back.’
“I said, ‘Why not us? Why can’t we do that? We’ve got all the people, the support. We’ve got what we need. We’ve just got to make it happen.’
“So I said, ‘I hope you understand this is the expectation, and we better embrace that because that’s what happens at Notre Dame.’”
Johnson recalls a recent key conversation with University vice president and James E. Rohr athletics director Jack Swarbrick.
“Jack asked me, ‘How do you think the team is going to respond?’ I said, ‘Well, I think outside of the shock, I think they want Jim to be their coach. They should. He’s earned that and he’s very good.
“‘But I think they would also say if he just can’t do it–and that’s really what this is about–then I think they would like the continuity of the staff to stay in place and keep going the way they’re going.’
“From day one we’re not going to reteach anything. We’re just going to refine what we’re doing and make it better.”
The white boards, chock full of numbers and detail and motivation, that became so ubiquitous during McLaughlin’s tenure?
Says Johnson, “I’ve got two in my office.”
He expects to continue to chase his dream with current Irish assistant coach Katie Wilson, who came to Notre Dame after multiple successful stints at the high school level in the Seattle area.
“She may go harder than any coach in the country,” says Johnson. “She’s been here every step of the way, and we’re really fired up that she’s going to continue to be part of this.”
Going back to his first season in South Bend in 2015 it didn’t take long for Johnson to understand the magic of Notre Dame.
“I believe strongly in this university. It’s not just about volleyball,” he says.
“When we first got here I remember telling my wife that when you go to other sporting events, you always want the other coaches in the department to succeed. But I found myself pulling harder for the teams at Notre Dame than any other school I’ve been at.
“I remember saying, ‘Come on, guys.’ It was on a whole different level.
“My wife said, ‘This is more of a sign this is where we need to be.’ I just hope our team, the recruits, know we’re going to embrace the standards and expectations of Notre Dame.
“Then our goal is about helping every individual become who she wants to become. I hope they have a great experience. I hope when they want to become an Olympic‑level volleyball player or if they want to go work on Wall Street, we’re going to provide them the tools to help them do what they want to do.
“And just know that while they’re doing it, we’re going to kick some tail in volleyball.”
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.