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'We were a torn group': How group therapy and an interim coach drove Texas State to conference title

Keff Ciardello
American-Statesman Correspondent
Texas State head coach Terrence Johnson speaks with players during a November game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Johnson guided the Bobcats to the Sun Belt regular season title this year, the first conference crown for the school since winning the Southland in 1999.

SAN MARCOS — With a regular season conference championship now in hand for Texas State’s men’s basketball, it’s hard to imagine the turmoil this program was in just five months ago. 

Head coach Danny Kaspar resigned on Sept. 23 after the conclusion of an investigation into racially insensitive remarks. While the findings of the investigation weren't made public, Kaspar, who coached for seven seasons at Texas State, denied the allegations in his resignation letter. 

Assistant coach Terrence Johnson was named interim coach after being with the program under Kaspar the previous six seasons. Early on in Johnson’s tenure, he could tell it was going to be an uphill battle.

“We started the season off not even being able to practice for three days,” Johnson said. “It’s not really a secret but it’s not out there. We had to cancel practice for three days because we could not get along. We were torn. We were a torn group. You had the young guys that were coming in and were excited about being in college, so that’s half the team that was just coming in to being Division I ball players, so they were happy and excited. 

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Texas State guard Mason Harrell goes up for a shot against Mississippi State during a game in November. After the Bobcats clinched the Sun Belt title with a win over Louisiana-Monroe, Harrell called sidelined coach Terrence Johnson as the team was cutting down the nets.

“Then you had eight guys – four returners on one side that I had a close connection with and that I had recruited – and then you have four guys that either (former assistant coach) Jim Shaw or Kaspar had a closer connection with. So then when you go through this and you’ve got a new coach, those four guys are excited because I recruited them, so they’re thinking they are going to get to do this, this and this. But then those other four guys are wondering, ‘What does this mean for me if you’re going to be doing this, this and this?’ We had a lot of different things. Everybody was concerned about how it impacted them and we had to address every single last one of those things before we start talking about us.”

While some coaches may have decided to cut loose on detracting players in order to exert their will, Johnson went another route. He reached out to associate athletic director Tracy Shoemake to connect him with the counseling center on campus, who connected him to Hillary Jones, senior psychologist at the Texas State counseling center.

Jones sat all the players down in a circle on the basketball floor for a two-hour group therapy session instead of practice. Johnson then gave the players the next day off before having the teams first official practice three days after everyone else. 

“Every ounce of hurt needs to be addressed,” Johnson said. “So all of our guys needed to be able to express themselves in the manner in which they wanted the next person, their teammate, to know why they felt this way.”

With a fresh mindset and a changed attitude, the Bobcats began what would become a “whirlwind of a season.”

After early losses in nonconference play to Texas and Mississippi State, it was the third loss of the season that Johnson credits as a turning point, a 61-58 loss on Dec. 12 to Our Lady of the Lake, an NAIA program in San Antonio.

The Bobcats won seven of the next eight games, including a 4-0 start in conference play. Texas State hit another snag in late Jan. with two consecutive home losses to Louisiana-Lafayette. After the losses, 62-60 on Jan. 29 and 74-73 on Jan. 30, Johnson elicited the help of the all-time leading scorer in program history, Nijal Pearson.

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Terrence Johnson was named interim head coach of the Texas State men's basketball team in September after head coach Danny Kaspar resigned. Johnson's squad finished the regular season at 18-6, winning the Sun Belt conference title with a 12-3 record.

“Although Nijal wasn’t a part of this team, he was a part of this season,” Johnson said. “Nijal is really close with everybody on this team. They look up to him, they admire him. He’s laid the groundwork for everything this program is about. A lot of people don’t know this but after we dropped that tough weekend against Lafayette, I called him. I asked, ‘What is it that we’re missing?’ He talked to me and he told me what he thought I needed to do better and how I can relate a little bit.”

Pearson, who played for Texas State from 2016 to 2020, was recruited by Johnson to Texas State after playing on Johnson’s AAU team in Houston when he was 15, along with current Bobcats guard Marlin Davis. Johnson said he considers Pearson family. 

After the Pearson pep talk, the Bobcats ended the season with seven consecutive wins to finish 18-6, 12-3 in the Sun Belt, earning the regular season Sun Belt championship in the second to last game, a 58-49 home win over ULM on Friday. It is the Bobcats first conference championship since winning the Southland Conference title in 1999.

However, Johnson wasn’t in attendance for that game or the final three after testing positive for COVID-19. Associate head coach Bennie Seltzer, who joined Texas State in October after Johnson was named interim, took over in Johnson’s absence through the final three wins. 

COVID-19 didn’t stop Johnson from finding a way to celebrate with his team on Friday. In a moment that has since gone viral, Johnson surprised his players after the game by pulling up in his car outside the arena for a safe celebration. The team jumped on his car as Johnson remained safely inside, honking his horn. 

“It was unbelievable,” Johnson said. “(Texas State guard) Mason Harrell called me and he said, ‘You are going to cut down these nets with me.’ I said take me up there so he grabs the phone and he’s up there taking down the net. In a moment that’s about them and he’s called me to share it with me, that was a great feeling. 

“(Seltzer) gets on the phone and says, ‘I told them we are going to save the nets for you.’ I said, ‘You cut down the nets, man. You get up there, cut down the nets and enjoy the moment.’ He said, ‘I wish you were here.’ And as he was saying that, I just started walking out of my apartment. I said, ‘I’m on my way.’ I said, ‘Bennie, get those guys to come outside. I don’t know how you are going to do it, I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but I want to see them. I don’t care what they do, just get them outside.’”

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After initially experiencing symptoms, Johnson said he is feeling better and will join the team on March 2. 

Despite the success of this season, the interim tag remains in place for Johnson even as fans, current players and national media members on social media call for him to be named head coach. Johnson said there hasn’t been any conversations between him and Texas State about the job, but that’s just the way he likes it.

“All the time, I say yesterday is yesterday and tomorrow is too far away. I tend to focus on the present,” Johnson said. “So I haven’t really talked to them, to be honest with you, about it. For us to get to this point, I felt like I did it the right way. It would be a distraction. It would be a distraction for me. So I’m glad that we’ve gotten to this point. We’ve either done one of two things: We’ve either made it easier or we’ve made it harder for them to make a decision, depending on which way they wanted to go.”