CHICAGO – Matt Johnson is fond of building things from scratch, and that’s a big reason why he is the new Associate Director of Sports Performance for DePaul men’s basketball.
Oh also, he has bought in 110 percent to athletic director DeWayne Peevy‘s mission of Dreaming Big.
Pretty much, all it took was one phone conversation with new coach Tony Stubblefield for Johnson to make the move from West Madison Street to Sheffield and Belden.
Johnson has spent the last nine years as a Bulls strength and conditioning coach—the last five heading up the department.
His “career high” when it comes to rehabilitation projects was one of the NBA’s best players, Zach LaVine—but more on that a little later.
“In early spring I got a call from the strength coach at Oregon asking if I’d be interested in a college job in Chicago,” Johnson said. “When I said yes, coach Stubbs reached out saying he was ready to rebuild the DePaul program from the ground-up. Listening to him, I knew I wanted to become a part of something special.”
There is a distinct difference building up and training NBA players as opposed to those in the NCAA. For one thing, the pros are pretty much millionaires with vast resources at their disposal. They are much closer to a finished product and just need a little fine tuning here and there.
“From a strength coach’s perspective, there is more teaching and player development in the college game,” Johnson said. “You get to see the players invest in a conditioning program maybe for the first time in their careers. And the way Stubbs is running our program, you have a chance to make an impact on young student athletes that will affect them for the rest of their lives.
“In the NBA, it’s more of continuing what already works. A lot of guys have their own personal trainers, and there’s a lot of one-on-one workouts and conditioning. They are really specific and dialed in.
“In college, there’s more of a team environment and you get to be more of a coach. The logistical side of training is different. With college-aged kids, you’re working with raw student athletes and you get to build them up from scratch.”
Johnson acknowledged that in some cases, there isn’t a lot of upside for an NBA strength coach.
“You’re not going to change much with a 10-year veteran in the NBA,” Johnson said. “Your job at that point is to just make sure you don’t mess him up.”
The risk-reward factor for a college strength coach is tipped a lot more in his or her favor.
“The impact you can have on a college player is so much more,” Johnson said. “There’s an opportunity to be a teacher and help student-athletes develop good habits for sleep, nutrition and weight training.
“My biggest goal is that these young men become self-sufficient for the rest of their lives.”
That’s not to say there aren’t moments of pure satisfaction in the pro game.
Enter Zach LaVine.
In some ways, the Bulls’ NBA All-Star guard who has sparked his team to a fast start owes some of his success to Johnson and his dedication to his craft.
“Four months post-op after his ACL surgery in February of 2017, Zach started his rehab,” Johnson said. “And we developed a program from scratch. He had never undergone anything like this before.
“To his credit, Zach attacked the rehab process like he attacks opponents on the court. He was relentless, and it was gratifying seeing him return to form. He is actually in better shape now than pre-injury.
“He had to face adversity getting back physically and it’s quite a success story.”
That brought to mind another of Johnson’s happy endings.
“Another player I worked with a lot was Tony Snell,” Johnson said. “He came to the Bulls as a 6-7, 198-pound wing, and after a strenuous strength and conditioning program built himself up to 230 pounds.
“He is the type of pro athlete who will do anything and everything you ask of him physically, and he takes a personal pride in doing all those things just right. You could see the benefits from it.”
Johnson, who has worked at both Wisconsin-La Crosse and the University of Wisconsin, now wants to contribute his expertise and experience to Peevy and Stubblefield’s grand design of transforming the Blue Demons to that nationally ranked and often feared NCAA powerhouse of the 1970s and 80s.
His main goals are to reduce the risks of injury and improve physical performance metrics.
“As for injuries, I’ll work with Sports Medicine to develop a well-rounded recovery program along with good nutrition, sleep education and hydration strategies,” said Johnson who earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Wisconsin-La Crosse. “We’ll also pay close attention to a load-monitoring program using Kinexon chips to keep track of workloads.
“As for performance, I’m looking to improve our guys’ work capacity, durability and robustness to handle practices and games. Let’s improve body composition and establish a strength foundation that will ramp up power and transferrable speed.
“It’s all about keeping guys healthy and in the kind of peak physical shape that will give them a chance to impact games in crunch time.”
There have been other attempts in other years restoring Blue Demon basketball to its glory days. What makes Johnson think this time will ultimately succeed?
“It’s because of Stubbs,” Johnson said without hesitation. “He is very disciplined and hard-working with a strong emphasis on instilling discipline and personal pride. Be on time. He is so dedicated to developing not only talented players, but developing better young men.
“You don’t see this everywhere. It’s pretty special to be here.
“Tony has a really good feel for the state of the team and knows exactly how hard to push them.”
Illustrating his point, Johnson said Stubblefield asked him last Wednesday to quantify how hard practice was on a scale of 1-to-5.
“I thought it was about a 5,” Johnson said. “Stubbs said about a four-and-a-half.
“We checked the Kinexon device and it read 4.5.
“He has a great feel for that kind of thing. It’s the art of coaching, and Tony has a great feel for it.”