Entering his 14th season as head coach of the South Dakota State University women’s basketball team, Aaron Johnston has taken the Jackrabbit program to the top of NCAA Division II and is leading SDSU to national prominence at the Division I level.
Johnston enters the 2013-14 campaign with a career record of 315-108 (.745 winning percentage), becoming South Dakota State’s winningest women’s basketball coach during the 2012-13 season. He recorded win No. 302 at Oakland on Jan. 10, 2013, to pass his predecessor, Nancy Neiber, who compiled a 301-140 record in 16 seasons from 1985-2000. Johnston posted his 200th career victory on Dec. 4, 2008, against Centenary (La.) and career win No. 300 versus Kansas City on Jan. 3, 2013. His career totals have included an 89-17 record (.840 winning percentage) in Summit League regular season games, a perfect 15-0 mark in Summit League postseason tournament contests and a 16-9 mark (.640 winning percentage) in postseason games.
The Summit League Coach of the Year in each of the Jackrabbits’ first two seasons in the league and again during the 2011-12 season, Johnston was named a finalist for the 2009 Naismith Award as the nation’s top coach. 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 non-conference victories over the likes of Wisconsin, Utah, Minnesota and Gonzaga (Wash.). The Jackrabbits were ranked in the final 13 USA Today/ESPN regular season coaches’ polls, climbing as high as 14th in the coaches' poll and 16th in the Associated Press poll. SDSU finished the 2008-09 season ranked 19th in the coaches’ poll.
Along 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 win a third consecutive Summit League regular season title during the 2009-10 season, third-seeded SDSU repeated as conference 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 (Mich.). 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 (Ohio) 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.
Johnston laid the foundation to a successful transition to Division I by leading SDSU to three consecutive NCAA Division II Elite Eight appearances, including the first national championship in the program’s history during the 2002-03 season.
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 against 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 North Central Conference 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 of the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.
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. That 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 in 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 another new era as South Dakota State began play in The Summit League during the 2007-08 season. SDSU continued its run of success by winning the Summit League regular season title — the program’s first outright conference championship. The Jackrabbits completed 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 earn their second consecutive berth in the WNIT. However, SDSU's home-court advantage was not enough as the Jackrabbits fell to a hot-shooting Creighton (Neb.) squad, 76-69, in the tournament’s first round.
SDSU repeated as Summit League regular season champions during the 2008-09 season, improving by one game 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 by 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 (Mich.).
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 (Texas), 60-58.
During their first three seasons at the Division I level, the Jackrabbits dominated the independent ranks by posting a 19-2 overall record against fellow D-I independents, including an 18-0 record the last two seasons. In both the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons Johnston was honored as the Division I Independent Women’s Basketball Coach of the Year.
Johnston first became associated with the Jackrabbit women’s basketball team when he spent the 1999-2000 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 in the final six games of the season as as SDSU finished the season with a 19-8 overall record, 11-7 in NCC play. One of the Jackrabbits’ victories was over second-ranked and eventual national runner-up North Dakota State.
When the interim label was removed from his title on June 30, 2000, Johnston became the seventh head coach in the modern era of South Dakota State University women’s basketball, which began in 1967.
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 North Central Conference 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.
Not only have Johnston’s teams performed well on the court, they have excelled 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 eight seasons, and led all divisions of women's basketball in team grade-point average four times — three consecutive seasons (2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08) and again during the 2010-11 campaign.
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. 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 Jackrabbit men’s basketball team for two seasons before becoming assistant women’s coach. He also coached the SDSU golf teams one year.