Anderson native -- and Painter assistant -- Johnson details Purdue's special season

Apr. 3—When Terry Johnson was hired at Purdue, his family had to remain behind for a time at his previous stop in Columbus, Ohio.

Boilermakers head coach Matt Painter offered his new assistant coach unfettered access to his home. Johnson came and went as he pleased, working early mornings and late nights as he familiarized himself with the finer points of the program.

Later, when the rest of the Johnson family arrived, Painter invited the entire clan over for a summer barbeque.

There was meat on the grill, baseball on TV and even a homemade slip-and-slide for the kids leading into the backyard pool.

"I said, 'Paint, you ain't got to do that,'" Johnson recalled during a phone interview earlier this week. "He's like, 'No, come on, this is fun. Let them go.' So, like, that's just him."

For those wondering what separates Painter's program — which has gone 91-18 over the past three seasons with Anderson-native Johnson on the staff and will compete in the Final Four on Saturday for the first time in 44 years — there are worse places to start than the family atmosphere fostered by its patriarch.

The program is deeply rooted in Indiana basketball traditions, and that is intentional. Painter grew up in Muncie, and he and Johnson have bonded over their similar background and upbringing.

"We know how much basketball means to Indiana," Johnson said. "When we grew up playing in our area, the town pretty much shut down on weekends. Basketball's king, and then everybody got together after. We laugh about people that we grew up with. The basketball stories, they just go on and on."

So does the success.

Johnson was part of back-to-back Final Four appearances as an assistant coach to Brad Stevens at Butler in 2010 and 2011, and the Boilermakers reached the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll for the first time in program history during his first season in West Lafayette.

That year ended with an upset loss in the Sweet 16 against 15th-seeded Saint Peter's, but the heartbreak was just beginning.

Last season, Purdue returned to the top spot in the AP poll and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. What followed was unwanted history — another upset loss, this time against 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson, just the second such March Madness stunner ever.

The defeat ignited a firestorm of criticism, especially toward Painter. Could he win the big one? Could superstar Zach Edey win the big one?

The players and coaches heard it all. Then they went back to work.

"It just puts you in a place where you're like, 'What?'" Johnson said. "And sports can do that to you, right? Sometimes you can be high, and you're gonna be really low. But our guys — everybody took a break. They all kind of got away from it for a little bit. It's hard to kind of like watch ball for me.

"But our guys were right back in the weight room. Most of our guys — if not all of them — were right back in the weight room after the weekend, and they didn't have to be. And it just kind of showed a lot about our guys."

The road back truly began with a summer trip to Europe.

Edey missed the tour because he was competing with Team Canada, but the trip offered a rare chance for the players to bond.

The family theme again was dominant.

"It's not about ball," Johnson said. "It's not all about ball. You see how we interact with our families, how we interact with our kids, our wives and everybody else. It's just the human side. Then you get to the basketball."

Those bonds kept the Boilers together during a regular season that tested them at every turn.

Purdue won the Maui Invitational against one the strongest fields in the tournament's history — opening with wins against Gonzaga and Tennessee, who it met again in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight respectively — and it tore through the Big Ten for its second straight regular-season championship and its record 26th all time.

But this season always was going to be about what happened in March.

Could the Boilermakers shake off the historic loss? Could they finally get over the postseason hump?

A superlative run by Edey helped provide the answer. He's averaged 30 points and 16.3 rebounds while shooting 64% from the floor, and he's quieted the critics — for both himself and his head coach — for now.

Johnson is ecstatic to coach a player of Edey's caliber, and he's proud to be part of Painter's first Final Four appearance.

But the game against 11th-seeded North Carolina State on Saturday in Glendale, Arizona, won't define Painter's legacy in Johnson's eyes.

"Whether he went there (to the national semifinals) or not, he's one of the top coaches in the country," Johnson said. "Just from an on-the-floor standpoint to an ambassador off the floor, he's everything a college, a university, a coaching fraternity — it's Coach Painter. That's who you want to model yourself after, in my opinion.

"Being able to make it to a Final Four, it just adds to it in my opinion. And he would never say it ... but we're not done, though. This is just the start of it. Like, the whole deal — yeah, everybody says you want to get to the Final Four. We want to win it. Nobody goes into the beginning of the season and says, 'I just want to make it to the Final Four.' No, everybody's trying to be the last team standing. And then just for Coach Painter, I'm happy to see us get there and people can leave that alone.

"But we're not just (aiming) to get there. That's not what we're just here to do."