When then-Illinois Athletic Director Larry Lyons introduced Leah Johnson as ISU’s new volleyball coach in June 2017, he said, “She’s kind of a Type A personality and that’s good. I see that as guts and I see that as passion.”
Jaelyn Keene attended the press conference at the Hancock Stadium Club. She was already aware of the passion.
Johnson had met with the Redbird players a few hours earlier, and Keene, an all-conference star heading into her senior season, found her energized and “super open to things.”
“I think we should be like that too,” Keene said. “It’s nice to know that we have Coach Johnson and she’s just ready to go.. a little fireball I guess.”
A fireball indeed, and now a shining light for Redbird athletics and the university. News Thursday of her well-deserved five-year contract extension brought back memories of that first day hearing Johnson… what she said and how she said it.
Her eyes were wide and her voice was strong as she announced what ISU volleyball would stand for with her as coach. Johnson, a former Missouri state player and assistant coach, pledged to build a program on respect.
“We will treat people well, we will treat each other well,” she said. “We will lead by serving. We will serve each other. We will put the team before ourselves, we will put this program before ourselves… the university and the community before ourselves. And we will work to grow. We want to make sure we are a better version of ourselves every day.”
There was an urge to get out of your seat and go there, even for an aging, out-of-shape reporter with a notebook and pen. Not every introductory press conference creates that atmosphere.
One of the topics of the day was sports psychology. Johnson had spent time with a sports psychologist in her past. When asked what she had learned, she replied, “What it did for me was rely on what I know.”
It was a poignant response that, looking back, provided insight into why ISU volleyball has blossomed under Johnson.
“Trust what I know” values the knowledge you have gained, gives credence to what you have experienced and what you believe in.
Johnson’s gift is her ability to make players rely on what she knows. Courtney Pence, a junior libero when Johnson arrived, entered the NCAA tournament as a senior.
Ahead of a first-round NCAA game against Cincinnati, Pence said she and her teammates had “a lot of confidence” in Johnson from the start.
It sparked “her confidence and confidence in the new techniques and the process we were going through,” Pence said.
Of course, the “fireball” required hard work, dedication and attention to detail. The words sometimes came quickly and furiously. But if you believe in the message – trust what she knows – you are willing to put the time and effort into improving your life.
ISU is 104-53 in Johnson’s five seasons with five postseason berths and a current run of four NCAA Tournament bids. She delivered on those June 2017 promises. The special feeling of that day was no fluke.
During the conversation, Johnson discussed the impact of her husband, AJ Weissler, and their children, daughter Edith and son PJ, who called motherhood “my greatest joy and my first priority.”
“They’ve brought such a balance to my life,” she said.
There is also balance in Johnson’s coaching style. It was clear on an early December evening in 2019. Three days prior to a first round NCAA game against No. 3 national seed Wisconsin, the Redbirds were practicing at Horton Field House’s North Gym.
Johnson guided the players through a spirited and energetic workout, providing lessons learned while scrambling and hinting at Wisconsin’s leanings. You could feel the intensity, focus. And you could hear the music. Johnson blared to simulate the decibel level of Wisconsin’s noisy home arena.
But there was also this: “Pawficcer” Sage, the ISU Police Station community dog, was in attendance. The players enjoyed interacting with their dog visitor, a refreshing reminder that in the midst of work there could be an element of play. Not every coach would allow that, let alone embrace that.
She is a passionate, caring dynamo with an infectious spirit and energy. It wins on the field and in the living rooms of recruits and their parents.
Kudos to ISU for extending her contract. She is a keeper in every way.
PHOTOS: Illinois State Volleyball Coach Leah Johnson
Leah Johnson, Melinda Fischer, Tina Kramos
Leah Johnson, Melinda Fischer
Main photo of Leah Johnson 2017
Leah Johnson, ISU volleyball coach, 2018 hedshot
Leah Johnson headshot for 2019
Leah Johnson & Terry Lindberg.jpg
Leah Johnson in conversation with team
Randy Kindred is a columnist and retired sports editor at The Pantagraph.