Thursday, February 9, 2023

'I feel I am at the premier institution': Leah Johnson welcomed as a new era of Spartan volleyball is born

February 9, 2022
Michigan State University welcomes its new head volleyball coach, Leah Johnson. Feb. 8, 2022.
Michigan State University welcomes its new head volleyball coach, Leah Johnson. Feb. 8, 2022. —
Photo by Chloe Trofatter | The State News

Earlier this week, the Spartans announced that they hired Leah Johnson as the new volleyball head coach, replacing MSU legend Cathy George.

Retiring after 17 seasons, George steps down as the winningest head coach in Michigan State volleyball history.

Although she has big shoes to fill, Johnson’s previous record shows that she is no stranger to success.

In five years as the head coach of the Illinois State Redbirds, Johnson went 104-52, which ranks seventh all-time among Missouri Valley Conference coaches. She led the Redbirds to five-straight postseason tournament appearances, including three straight MVC Tournament championships and four straight NCAA Tournament appearances in the past four seasons. 

Even though she was very successful at Illinois State, she wanted to find a place where the energy she brings is reciprocated, and MSU was the perfect fit.

“I feel like that it was where can I best coach,” Johnson said. “I know my style ... I needed to find a place that appreciates how I do it. I do it with relationships, I do it with collaboration, I do it through kind of just being me. I am not going to lean on the fact that I am associated with something great, I just want to be great, try my best and get better every day. I am a lifelong learner and I want to serve the institution. I felt like that was reciprocated towards me.”

Family is where home is, and family is also very important to Johnson, and she senses that Michigan State is a place where she can call home.

“It was so impressive to me to see the love and the care everyone has for each person that they crossed,” Johnson said. “In the time and commitment that the coaches shared with me, it made me realize that this is a bigger team than my sport. It is a family, and I wanted to be at a place that my family would be valued, that I would be proud to have my kids raised in the community and wear the green and white. This is a special place and I feel that I am in a special opportunity.”

Michigan State Athletic Director Alan Haller knew that he had to find someone qualified to replace George, but he didn’t just measure the statistics in the process, he measured character and Johnson lived up to the measure.

“For me, it really was not necessarily about the coach that had the best record, it was more so the vision of our next coach and how they went about developing the student athletes and by far, her passion and energy for that was what made her stand out,” Haller said.

Johnson knows that she is taking over for an all-time great, and she is very grateful to be in this position, but when she leaves, she wants to leave the program in an even better position than it is today. 

“Part of what I believe in is that there are so many people that came before you. I am standing on someone’s shoulders, figuratively,” Johnson said. “There are alumni who have blood, sweat and tears in that gym. Coaches who have been in there for hours on end watching film, grinding. Everyone has built a layer here to what this program is today. Cathy is one of them. She is a mentor, she is a competitor, she is a leader, and I would be remiss not to recognize the amazing results and achievements of those before me. That is the advantage I get to start with. How lucky am I to get to start with that advantage, and my goal is to create a bigger advantage for the person who follows me, let's hope that is several years down the road.”

A new age of Spartan volleyball is officially underway. 

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