Former Pali High Coach Torino Johnson Seeks to Revitalize the Cal State LA Women’s Program
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
Torino Johnson took the reigns of Palisades High’s basketball program in 2007 and over the next 10 seasons he built the Dolphins into a City powerhouse, piloting the girls to four Western League titles, four section championships and seven state playoff berths. He racked up 203 victories along the way, was named City Coach of the Year four times and earned Cal-Hi Sports’ Division I State Coach of the Year honors in 2016. Under his leadership, the Dolphins made the City Open Division final three consecutive times, capturing back-to-back crowns in 2015 and 2016 and his 2010-11 squad set a school single-season record with 30 wins en route to its second straight City Division II title. He resigned after the 2016-17 season and was subsequently hired as an assistant on Cheryl Miller’s staff at Cal State Los Angeles. He was promoted to head coach in August and has enjoyed his first campaign with the Golden Eagles. Johnson was back at Pali High on March 10 to watch the Dolphins win the SoCal Regional Division II championship and in an exclusive interview with Palisadian-Post Sports Editor Steve Galluzzo, he shared his insights on the step up to the collegiate level, the challenges his task presents, what it takes to be successful in recruiting and memories of his days at Palisades:
PP: What are your fondest memories from coaching at Palisades? What accomplishments are you most proud of there?
TJ: Each championship won or lost was part of a process which entailed countless hours of training and coaching and I’ve always prided myself on being able to create an environment in which our players could thrive in. But what I’m most proud of is all of the relationships developed while guiding the Palisades girls basketball program forward. I’m forever appreciative of the opportunity I was afforded to coach the Lady Dolphins.
PP: How well do you know current Palisades Coach Adam Levine? Do you give him advice from time to time on how to deal with transfers, scheduling and administrative issues?
TJ: I’ve known Adam for a few years as he was the head coach at Crossroads School, so I’m sure he understands how important relationships are in this profession. He has my phone number and whenever he needs me, he knows how to reach me.
PP: What was it like coming back to campus to watch some of the games this year? Did it bring back memories?
TJ: Watching Palisades excel in the state playoffs brought back incredible memories. It’s always great to see the Pacific Palisades community support the girls basketball program. It was exciting to see the boys and girls teams have back-to-back home games and the environment was nostalgic and magical. It was a great year to be a Dolphins fan!
PP: What’s the biggest difference between high school coaching and college coaching? Which is harder? Did you have to change your style and/or demeanor with older players?
TJ: At the college level there is less room for error on the floor, the CCAA (California Collegiate Athletic Association) is full of well-coached programs. College presents its own challenges as you have to make yourself proficient with NCAA rules. The high school level doesn’t require recruiting, however my job is heavily dependent on my ability to attract top student athletes to CSLA. I’ve always been a cooperative style coach, so input from all stakeholders has remained a key factor in my development. I’ve always been an aggressive learn-it-all type guy and that approach has helped me build an inner circle of some of the game’s greats.
PP: What does it take to be a good recruiter? What skills are necessary to attract top talent but also character individuals to a program?
TJ: We’re recruiting high- character individuals who have an interest in being extraordinary. Being a great recruiter requires time, energy, media, information and technology literacy. As a coaching staff we’re searching for the best talent and fit so it requires us to do our homework and research every individual. We watch film, attend games in person and consistently talk to those who know the student athletes. There’s a science to recruiting and I’m fortunate to have an amazing group of coaches who can attract top talent.
PP: Why did you decide to leave Palisades when you did, after having so much success there? How did you know it was the right time to go?
TJ: I had a great time at the helm of the Palisades girls program. There’s really never a good time to leave, you just continue on your path and keep moving forward. Of course, I recognize that I’ve been blessed with so many opportunities that stem from me being a coach at PCHS. The success I had as a coach there was a byproduct of the work that my coaching staff put in collectively, therefore the success isn’t mutually exclusive to one place. If you do a good job where you currently coach, you don’t have to look to further your career because the work stands the test of time. For me it’s all about the journey, not the destination.
PP: What was it like after leaving Palisades? How much did you learn from being an assistant before you were hired as head coach?
TJ: Leaving Palisades was a very hard decision for me, but I’ve learned so much about being a better coach from everyone in my athletics department. I’ve been blessed to be around some incredible people such as coaches Marvin Hall and George Raveling, who consistently pour into my continued development. Lastly, I learned a great deal from [head coach] Cheryl Miller and [assistant coach] Ronnie Barney on staff with me. I was thrown into the fire and given administrative duties as well as the practice planning and the scouting duties. Ronnie taught me that coaching isn’t about a title or position and Cheryl just taught me how to navigate through the job as a true professional. I’ve been tasked to be the caretaker of the Golden Eagles women’s basketball program by our Vice President Jose Gomez, Executive Director for Athletics Dr. Daryl Gross, Senior Associate Athletic Director Dr. Anne Larson and President William Covino and so I’m thrilled to be entering my second year.
PP: What has been the best part about coaching at Cal State LA? What attracted you to the program in the first place?
TJ: Coaching at CSLA is special because I’m able to assist in the development of our student athletes on a daily basis. There are no off days, my work hours are odd hours and long hours. CSLA is No. 1 in the country in upward mobility. Young people are graduating from CSLA and moving up the income ladder. I couldn’t be more excited to represent this fine university.
PP: How excited are you to have a former NBA champion like Metta World Peace on your coaching staff?
TJ: Metta World Peace has one of the best basketball minds in the business and I’m fortunate to have him on my coaching staff. Metta brings a wealth of experience as he and I won championships together at Palisades. In addition to having Metta World Peace, I have Jia Perkins, who is a former WNBA All-Star and champion and David Elliot, who has years of NCAA Division I experience and is now my recruiting coordinator; and finally Kameron McClinton, who is an up-and-coming assistant coach in the sport.
PP: What are your goals and aspirations for the future?
TJ: I’ve always been growth- oriented so when it comes to my career, I’ve remained focused on self-management, as it’s one of the things I can control. I’m intentional about my growth and over the years I’ve been able to build an inner circle comprised of talented people. My close friend Herb Courtney created Renaissance Search and Consulting Firm and watching him launch this company has inspired me to look at the business of hiring and firing in collegiate athletics. Herb owns and operates the only minority led search firm in America and he’s on my personal board of directors alongside Baron Davis, Marvin Hall, Phil Handy and my good friend Steve Aust. These people represent extraordinary disruptive thinkers who contribute towards my growth.
PP: How does the current Lady Dolphins squad remind you of the ones you coached?
TJ: It’s hard to compare because the players are different. I think my teams scored a lot more than this one because of the style we played. I’ve always believed in the teams I’ve coached and I know Adam does too. He and his staff are doing a tremendous job. I’ve admired the work this particular group of players has done. I was privileged to coach so many talented All-City guards like Jane Nwaba, Chaniya Pickett, Chelsey Gipson, Kayla Merrill-Gillett and Kayla Williams, to name a few. Adam will only add more names to the plethora of talented teams Palisades has been able to produce throughout its history.
PP: How difficult was it to have the basketball season canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak?
TJ: That was nice for us to end the year strong with wins in three of our last four games. As far as the season being cut short, of course it’s unfortunate but I’d rather have March Madness and other sporting events suspended as opposed to putting all of our student athletes, coaches and fans in harms way. It’s better to be safe than sorry. We’re dealing with a global pandemic and we need to curve the spread of this disease. We do so by following the CDC’s recommendation to socially distance ourselves and quarantine. Although I would’ve loved to have filled out a bracket, the health of the people we love comes first and I’ll be praying for all of those who’ve been impacted by this pandemic.
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