About Utah: Basketball has been good to Phil Johnson

Published: Sunday, Jan. 27 2013 11:19 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — For 48 seasons, from the day he put a whistle around his neck to help with the freshman team at Utah State University to the day two years ago he stepped down from the Utah Jazz in lockstep with Jerry Sloan, he coached basketball.

And now? What in the world is Phil Johnson doing now?

That's easy. Taking them one day at a time, of course.

Once a coach, always a coach, and few have dignified the profession more fully, at more levels, or for more duration, than the native of Grace, Idaho, (pop. 761) who showed up for seventh-grade basketball tryouts at Grace Junior High only to be greeted by none other than legendary NBA coach Dick Motta.

Granted, this was before Motta would win his 935 games in the NBA, including the one that clinched the 1978 title for the Washington Bullets. Well before. This was 1954. Motta was 23 years old, in his first year of teaching school; Johnson was 12. But their meeting was serendipitous with a capital "S" because the story of where they would go from the little potato-farming town 70 miles north of Logan is one of the greatest examples you'll find of being able to get anywhere from anywhere.

After playing for Motta at Grace Junior High and Grace High School, Johnson played for Motta again at Weber Junior College (now Weber State University) before moving on to two NCAA tournament teams for the Utah State University Aggies.

He was a good college player – third on the team in scoring (behind Cornell Green and Darnell Haney) and rebounding – but there were nine teams in the NBA when he graduated in 1963 and supply far exceeded demand. At 21, he hired on to coach the freshmen at Utah State while he stayed in school to get married and earn his master's degree.

Then he was back to Weber, and Motta. Johnson was an assistant for four years until Motta went to the NBA. Johnson stayed three more years as head coach, won three Big Sky Championships, was named Coach of the Year every season (his 39-5 overall record is to this day the highest winning percentage in conference history), and then left for the Chicago Bulls to join you know who.

He stayed in the NBA 40 years. Forty years! Other than Red Auerbach, who does that?

Particularly someone who got fired three times — twice as head coach of the Kings and once as part of Jerry Sloan's staff with the Chicago Bulls. But every time one door closed another one opened, and more often than not it was one that had formerly closed.

Phil Johnson has the rare distinction of having been hired and then re-hired by every franchise he worked for. The Kansas City Kings let him go as head coach in 1978 and hired him again when they moved to Sacramento in 1984; he left the Chicago Bulls to take the Kings job in 1973 and the Bulls brought him back in 1979 as part of Sloan's staff; and the Jazz first hired him as part of Frank Layden's staff in 1982 after he left the Bulls and later, following the Kings II stint in Sacramento, hired him back in 1988 as part of Sloan's staff.

That's staying power. That's riding out the highs and lows, which points to another of Johnson's distinctions: he is the only man in history to be named NBA Coach of the Year (Kansas City 1975) and NBA Assistant Coach of the Year (four times, all in Utah, 2002, 2004, 2007, 2010).

The ride might have gone on even longer if not for Sloan's decision to abruptly step down as Jazz head coach two years ago. Johnson could have stayed on, but he'd had Sloan's back for too long not to have it now. At the age of 69, he retired too.

It's never easy leaving the good old days, especially when they really were good old days, but for Johnson the angst, as always, has been minimal. He's a broadcaster now. He does pregame, halftime and postgame commentary on television for Jazz home games and occasionally does color commentary on radio play-by-play. He also does a radio call-in show after every Jazz home game with another former coach, Tom Nissalke.

Regrets? Too few to mention. He says the Millers, who took care of him all those years when he was on the coaching staff, still treat him like royalty, as do Kevin O'Connor and the rest of the Jazz family. "They don't have to," he says, "but they do. I can't say enough good about them."

Asked what advice he might have for coaches who'd like to stay in business for half a century, he points to what worked for him: "I'd say check your ego at the door, and don't burn any bridges."

But he never has been one for telling other people what to do, or for looking at the past.

"You've got to move on," he says as he gets ready to watch a game involving a future Jazz opponent.

Only now it's so he can talk intelligently about the team on TV, not to figure out how to beat them.

Either way, you still gotta take them one game at a time.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@desnews.com

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