South Dakota State is winning the hearts of women’s basketball fans in the state and beyond one player, one game and one season at a time thanks to a soft-spoken coach who values family, friends and basketball. The dean of The Summit League coaches, Aaron Johnston has infused a culture of excellence, embraced the balance of student and athlete and has the name South Dakota State equating to success.
Entering his 16th season at the helm of the Jackrabbits program, Johnston has created a mid-major powerhouse by working hard daily to earn a prominent spot among the country’s elite women’s basketball programs. Johnston has guided SDSU to nine postseason appearances, including six NCAA Tournaments, since the program turned Division I in 2004-05. The four-time Summit League Coach of the Year (2008, 2009, 2012, 2014) has guided the Jackrabbits to a winning record in all 15 years at South Dakota State, and has led SDSU to 12 20-win seasons, including eight of the last nine years.
Johnston is South Dakota State’s winningest women’s basketball coach with a 365-126 (.743) record and he will coach his 500th career game December 9. In The Summit League, he is the career (.736, 195-70) and regular season (.838, 114-22) leader in winning percentage and is fourth in overall victories and fifth in league victories. He enters the 2015-16 season with an 18-1 Summit League postseason tournament record and a 23-12 mark in overall postseason games.
Under Johnston's guidance, South Dakota State has graduated its student-athletes and set a standard of excellence both on the court and in the classroom. The Jackrabbits have finished no worse than third among Division I programs in the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s Academic Top 25 Team Honor Roll for seven of the past 10 seasons, and led all divisions of women’s basketball in team GPA four times—three consecutive seasons (2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08) and again during the 2010-11 campaign.
During Johnston’s tenure, the Jackrabbits boast a league-leading four Academic All-Summit League honorees, five CoSIDA Academic All-Americans, a pair of NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship winners, three SDSU Team Academic Awards and a cumulative team GPA of 3.51 during Johnston’s 15 years.
To say South Dakota State made a smooth transition to Division I is an understatement. From the first bounce of the basketball, the Jackrabbits took over The Summit League and set their sights on the NCAA elite. The Jacks have posted a 195-71 (.733) Division I record, made six NCAA Tournaments and three Women’s NIT appearances, and Johnston was a 2009 Naismith Women’s College Coach of the Year finalist.
During its first three seasons at the Division I level (2004-05 to 2006-07), SDSU dominated the independent ranks posting a 65-22 (.747) record, including an 18-0 mark the final two seasons as an independent. The Jacks reached the quarterfinals of the Women’s NIT in 2006-07, and Johnston was named the Division I Independent Coach of the Year in 2006 and 2007.
With South Dakota State moving up to NCAA Division I during the 2004-05 season, the Johnston-led Jackrabbits posted their fourth consecutive 20-win season, finishing with a 21-7 record. The mark included an 8-7 record against Division I opponents, highlighted by victories over NCAA Tournament qualifier Middle Tennessee State and Southeastern Conference opponents Alabama and Kentucky.
The Jackrabbits continued their rise in the Division I ranks with a 19-9 record in 2005-06, then put together a breakthrough campaign during the 2006-07 season by posting a 25-6 overall record and becoming the first team since the transition to reach the postseason, reaching the quarterfinals of the Women’s NIT. SDSU won WNIT home games against Illinois State and Indiana before falling at Wyoming.
Johnston led the Jackrabbits into play in The Summit League during the 2007-08 season. SDSU began by winning the regular-season title—the program’s first outright conference championship. The Jackrabbits recorded a 16-2 mark in league play and 23-7 overall record for their sixth 20-win season in Johnston’s eight years as head coach. SDSU posted a 12-game winning streak to conclude conference play and earned its second consecutive berth in the WNIT. However, SDSU’s home-court advantage was not enough as the Jackrabbits fell to a hot-shooting Creighton squad, 76-69, in the tournament’s first round.
SDSU repeated as Summit League regular-season champions during the 2008-09 season, improving to a 17-1 record in league play. The Jackrabbits went into the Summit League Championships as the No. 1 seed and lived up to their billing, winning the conference tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D., with three double-digit victories. SDSU overcame a 14-point halftime deficit in the championship game, rallying for a 79-69 victory over Oakland.
With their conference tournament victory, the Jackrabbits became only the second team to earn a berth in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament in its first year of eligibility. Seventh-seeded SDSU opened NCAA Tournament play in Lubbock, Texas, with a 90-55 victory over Texas Christian, tying a school and tournament record with 16 three-pointers. The Jackrabbits were on the verge on reaching the Sweet 16 before falling in the final seconds to second-seeded Baylor, 60-58.
SDSU tied a school record for victories in a season with 32 during the 2008-09 campaign and gained national attention by vaulting into the top 25 in December after nonconference victories over Wisconsin, Utah, Minnesota and Gonzaga. The Jackrabbits were ranked in the final 13 USA Today/ESPN regular season coaches’ poll, climbing as high as 14th. In the Associated Press poll, the Jacks ranked as high as 16th. SDSU finished the 2008-09 season ranked 19th in the coaches’ poll.
On the way to a 32-3 overall record, the Jackrabbits received national media coverage from CBS Sports, USA Today, ESPN.com and The New York Times.
Although the Jackrabbits came up short in their bid to win a third consecutive Summit League regular-season title during the 2009-10 season, third-seeded SDSU repeated as league tournament champions by defeating top-seeded Oral Roberts, 79-75, in overtime. SDSU’s second consecutive NCAA Tournament bid marked its fourth consecutive postseason appearance at the Division I level.
Despite an up-and-down regular season during the 2010-11 campaign, SDSU became the first Summit League team to win three consecutive postseason tournament titles, claiming the 2011 championship with a 61-54 victory over Oakland. The Jackrabbits rebounded from a 4-9 start to win eight in a row and 11 of 12 games, entering an NCAA Tournament matchup at Xavier with a 19-13 overall record.
The Jackrabbits returned to the top of the Summit League during the 2011-12 campaign, winning the regular-season title with a 16-2 mark in league play. SDSU continued its mastery in the Summit League postseason tournament, recording a 78-77 overtime victory over UMKC for its fourth consecutive tourney title. The Jackrabbits trailed by as many as 17 points before rallying.
SDSU continued its Summit League dominance during the 2012-13 season, repeating as both Summit League regular-season and tournament champions. The Jackrabbits posted a 14-2 mark in league play and rallied for a 56-53 victory over in-state rival South Dakota in the championship game.
In 2013-14, Johnston led the Jackrabbits to a 26-10 overall record, including a 13-1 mark in The Summit League. SDSU won its fifth Summit League regular-season crown but lost in the league tournament. The Jacks accepted the program’s third Women’s NIT bid and made history by winning a school-record four postseason games while beating a pair of Big Ten and Big East foes en route to the Women’s NIT semifinals in El Paso, Texas. South Dakota State ended its season with a 66-63 loss to UTEP April 2, the latest date a Jackrabbit women’s basketball team has played.
SDSU also became just the fourth team in school history to go undefeated in Frost Arena during the 2013-14 regular season, posting a 14-0 record and an 18-0 record after the WNIT. The Jacks entered the 2014-15 season on a 21-game home win streak.
The Jackrabbits returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15, winning The Summit League tournament title with a commanding 72-57 win over South Dakota. The program’s sixth Division-I NCAA Tournament appearance pitted SDSU vs. No. 3 seed and 10th-ranked Oregon State. The Jacks finished the season 24-9 and with a 10-game home-winning streak.
Johnston laid the foundation to a successful transition to Division I by leading SDSU to three consecutive NCAA Division II Elite Eight appearances, including winning the 2002-03 national championship, the program’s first.
During their championship run, which culminated with a 65-50 victory over Northern Kentucky in the NCAA Division II championship game in St. Joseph, Mo., the Jackrabbits compiled a school-record 32 wins with just three losses. SDSU also earned a share of its first-ever North Central Conference title with a 14-2 record in league play. After leading SDSU to unprecedented success, Johnston was named the 2003 Molten/Women’s Division II Bulletin Coach of the Year.
The Jackrabbits attained much of the same success in the 2003-04 season, earning a share of their second consecutive NCC title and winning the North Central Regional for the third consecutive year. SDSU finished the 2003-04 season with a 26-7 mark, falling to eventual national champion California (Pa.) in the first round
Johnston first became associated with the Jackrabbit women’s basketball team when he spent the 1999-00 season as assistant coach under Nancy Neiber. After Neiber took a leave of absence late in the season, Johnston coached the Jackrabbits to a 4-2 record and SDSU finished the season with a 19-8 overall record, 11-7 in NCC play. One of the Jackrabbits’ four victories was over second-ranked and eventual national runner-up North Dakota State.
When the interim label was removed from his title June 30, 2000, Johnston became the seventh head coach in the modern era of South Dakota State women’s basketball, which began in 1966-67.
In the 2000-01 season, his first full season as Jackrabbit head coach, Johnston led SDSU to a 15-12 overall record. That mark included a NCC record of 9-9, which earned the Jackrabbits a berth in the seven-team Wells Fargo Finals conference postseason tournament.
During the 2001-02 season, Johnston led a Jackrabbit squad, which included just two seniors and nine freshmen, to SDSU’s first-ever appearance in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight. The Jackrabbits compiled a 28-9 record, setting a then-school record for wins in a season.
A native of Pine Island, Minn., “A.J.” earned a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., in 1996. After serving one year as an assistant coach at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, he moved on to SDSU as a graduate assistant for the Jackrabbits men’s basketball team for two seasons before becoming the assistant women’s coach. He also coached the SDSU golf teams one year.
He and his wife, Laurie, are the parents of Dylan, Laney, and Jacey.