January 23, 2014
By Mike Killeen
If Mike Durbin and Denny Johnson taped their initial meeting and tried to sell it to a TV network as a basis for a reality series, they might have been rejected on the spot.
After all, they couldn't have been more different. Durbin, a native of Ohio, was rigid, structured and to the point. Johnson, from St. Cloud, Minn., was more laid back, kind of a go-with-the-flow sort of person.
But somehow, someway, these two different personalities came together and formed a successful coaching tandem that continues today for the College of Saint Benedict basketball team. They've proven that opposites do attract.
Durbin, the Blazers' head coach, and Johnson, his assistant coach, have been together for 28 seasons. They won their 600th game as a coaching tandem with a 68-58 victory over Hamline Jan. 29 in St. Paul.
They've come long ways from that first meeting at a St. Cloud-area restaurant.
"I think we were there for a couple of hours, just talking about basketball," Johnson said. "It was interesting, because Mike and I were — at the time — two totally opposite people."
"I didn't get much in, edge-wise. Denny pretty much was in control of the conversation," Durbin said, smiling. "But it was clear to me, even at that point, Denny loved basketball, and knew a lot about basketball.
"The interesting thing is, over time, we've both come closer to the middle," Durbin said. "And I think that has allowed both of us to co-exist, because if we both would have stayed in that mode, it would have been difficult to move forward. But I think because we both were able to come to the middle, it has made for a tremendous combination, and certainly it has put us in a position where the program would not be where it's at without Denny."
Durbin allows Johnson and fellow assistants Steve Howe-Veenstra and Barry Peterson plenty of input regarding coaching decisions with the Blazers. When CSB leaves the court at halftime of a game, Durbin forms a quick huddle with his assistants, who offer advice and strategy for the second half. But the final decision always rests with Durbin.
"They (the players) want us to do our best job, just as we want them to do theirs," Johnson said. "It has been interesting how things have developed and we've figured out our roles. Both of us recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each other. But I go back to this — the bottom line is, I'm still the assistant coach. My role is to support the head coach."
"If I were to describe Denny, Denny has never been like a 'yes' assistant coach — just falling in line without providing another option or area of consideration, and that's made me a better head coach," said Durbin, who won his 600th career game Jan. 8 against Macalester College. "He didn't always say 'Yeah, I agree.' But once a decision was made, he was totally on board and there was total agreement with it.
"He has always been unbelievably supportive of how the decision was made and the rationale of the decision. He has also been extraordinarily loyal — all of those things that you are looking for in an assistant coach. I don't know where the program would be if Denny was just a 'yes' guy. He has, all along and still to this day, provided other opinions and options that need to be considered. He's really good at that," Durbin said.
Both said they have appreciated the opportunity CSB has given them.
"I think the bottom line is, we both love what we do, and really enjoy the College of Saint Benedict," said Johnson, who coached the CSB softball team to 522 career wins from 1987-2012 (he remains an assistant coach for softball coach Rachael Click). "It has been good to both of us. Both of us have had careers, I have two daughters who have graduated from CSB, and Mike's daughter is starting here next fall, and it has been a wonderful place to be. I think we both look back and just appreciate the opportunity that the school has given us."
While Durbin understands fans fascination with coaches hitting milestone wins, he's more proud of two accomplishments.
"Being at a place for 28 years, having a job at such a wonderful place for 28 years, has been great," Durbin said. "More important are the 300-plus alumnae that have played in the program. The relationships that we have with players from that first season, and the relationships we have with athletes from last year, truly does span three decades. There's a lot of satisfaction when you see student-athletes raise their families and move to another place in their lives."
Just like Mike Durbin and Denny Johnson did 28 years ago.
"He (Johnson) became somebody who was an acquaintance 28 years to someone who is a dear friend," Durbin said.