Tie game, 10 seconds to go. The ball gets fumbled around a little, broken play. Caleb Swanigan, the Indiana Mr. Basketball that year and current Portland Trail Blazer, scoops it up and lets a 3 go at the buzzer. Swish. Every Homestead player storms the court in celebration.
It was Homestead at DeKalb. 2014. A year before I took the DeKalb job. I remember watching the game the following summer, in preparation for the Baron team I was inheriting. But watching it at that moment was really nothing noteworthy. It was when a current assistant, who played for me at DeKalb, showed me again just months ago.
So I watched it closer, recognizing the young faces of Homestead players, decked out in blue travel suits. “Wow,” I think to myself as I watch the freshman team return back to their seats. “That kid is playing at Wabash now. That one was selected as an Honorable Mention All-American in NAIA. And that one is at Division 1 Colgate!” And they were on the freshman team.
No one in northeast Indiana has a better high school boys basketball program than Chris Johnson’s Homestead Spartans. Every team is exceptional. Every year. And it seems that much of this success can be attributed to players who buy into their role, and work to excel in it. Players who have waited for their opportunity, developed (and dominated) at their level, and when their number was called, they were ready. In this age of instant gratification and keyboard warriors, Coach Johnson maintaining this foundation of Trusting the Process and convincing players (and parents) to thrive in their current role while developing for their desired one is fascinating. So: What is the Secret Sauce?
“It’s a big family at Homestead. I think that helps a lot,” explains Brandon Durnell, a Spartan alum and current Spring Arbor player, the NAIA standout referenced earlier. “Coach Johnson is really good at building relationships off the court.” Players might desire a bigger role or to be playing the next level up, but they understand their value within the program is not predicated on their production or their level. And sure, winning at every level does not hurt either. “People seeing that success really helps. Maybe a player thinks he can play varsity, but the varsity is always winning, so he understands his place better.”
Beyond the philosophical approach of running the program, I asked Coach Johnson a few specifics in how he implements his system, and each team individually:
What are some things you look for in an assistant coach?
Passion, knowledge and loyalty to me and the program. I have been fortunate that Don Lines and Nick Ankenbruck have been with me for a long while now.
What is the main factor in determining what level an incoming frosh will play at? Physical readiness? Skill?
For a 9th grade player to be brought up to the JV team, they need to play and get the minutes to hopefully be ready to play varsity by their Sophomore season. If you are bringing them up, you have to believe they are physically ready.
I’ve seen your teams successful when you’ve had good bigs. When you’ve had guards as your best player(s). Your teams are dangerous both in the full court and in the half. What goes into deciding your offensive system in a given year, or do you see it as 1 main system with variations?
Our offense is decided on the players…..when we had Biggie and Batt, we went more to a high-low offense. When we have shooters, more to the pick and pop.
How do you manage development while emphasizing winning?
We work on skill work for the first 30-40 minutes for most practices
Family. Accountability. Role definition and acceptance. ISustained excellence. Respect to Chris Johnson and the Homestead Spartans.