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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

Johnson looks to keep making strides towards contention in second year

Luck, grace, circumstances – define head volleyball coach Mike Johnson’s path to Notre Dame however you would like, but he chooses a quote by Albert Einstein to describe how he came to be in his second season as head coach of the Irish: “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” 

Johnson, whose team is now 4-1 after a home win on Monday over No. 18 Purdue, credits much of his coaching success to former Notre Dame volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin, who held the position from 2015 to 2018. Johnson first met McLaughlin at the University of Washington, where Johnson was a member of the club volleyball team and his mentor was coaching the women’s team at the time. McLaughlin invited Johnson to be a practice player, and thus began the student-teacher relationship that has guided Johnson’s career.

“My true passions have always been teaching and coaching,” Johnson said. “To have a shot at this profession, you have to learn from people who are very good. It’s not always something you can figure out intuitively. [McLaughlin] taught me not just the methods and mechanics, but the principles of teaching, the focus it would take to be at the highest level. I was very fortunate I got my start under someone I consider the best coach and teacher in the country.”

Johnson, who spent one season at Austin Peay State University and five seasons at Xavier University as head coach, took a demotion when McLaughlin invited him to coach at Notre Dame as an assistant in 2015. He had previously assisted McLaughlin for one season at the University of Washington over a decade before, and saw this invitation as an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“If you had asked me fifteen years ago if I could coach anywhere in the country, I would have named three schools – and one of them was Notre Dame,” Johnson said. “This is a place where you can win at the highest level, but are challenged to hold yourself to the highest standards of integrity and academics. If it hadn’t been Coach McLaughlin and it hadn’t been Notre Dame, I would have said no.”

Johnson added that his years as head coach made him more willing to learn as an assistant. There were questions, he said, that he would not have even known to ask before his experience in running a program. 

Johnson began playing volleyball in his home state of Hawaii in seventh grade, where the sport was extremely popular. Though he never seriously considered playing in college, McLaughlin’s mentorship led him to high-level coaching directly after graduating college. When McLaughlin stepped down in 2018, Johnson began looking at his own vision for the future of the Irish.

“I believe that Notre Dame should be in the national title hunt every year,” Johnson said. “We are one of the best schools in the country and our volleyball team should reflect that. We’re not there yet, but we’re taking steps to get there, and it’s going to happen.”

Johnson and his program took a big step towards becoming national title contenders in his first year at the helm, as the Fighting Irish went 16-12 overall and 10-8 in conference. The team had a record five players named to the Second All-ACC Team, and their senior libero Ryan DeJarld won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year award.

Johnson also believes that the recruiting classes coming in are strong and will be able to take the program to the next level. College volleyball starts recruiting very young – usually when players are in eighth or ninth grade – so when Johnson talks about the future of the program, he’s not just looking at next season, but years ahead. 

Johnson also hopes to increase student involvement in the crowd by upping game attendance and participation. 

“For those who haven’t experienced the game of college volleyball, there is a level of athleticism and power that you don’t see in your backyard game,” he said. “We have several players on the team who can hit the ball close to 60 miles per hour. There are swings of momentum and emotion that the crowd can really get caught up in.”

Notre Dame returns home Wednesday, September 18 to take on Michigan at Purcell Pavilion at 7 p.m.