Nate Johnson played 32 games in the Donald L. Tucker Center as Florida State’s point guard in 2003 and 2004. He led the Seminoles into the national rankings, to five victories over nationally ranked teams and to a pair of wins in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
He also walked across the stage in the Tucker Center in the spring of 2004, as he earned his degree in social science.
Yet, when he walks into the Tucker Center on Thursday night, he will have a completely different feeling than he has in each of the countess times he has entered the building.
That’s because Johnson is returning home to compete against Florida State as an assistant coach with the Central Missouri Mules, the Seminoles’ opponent in their first exhibition of the 2017-18 season. Johnson will coach against his college team for the first time at 7 p.m. Thursday
“It will put a smile on my face to be back in the Civic Center,” Johnson said. “I’m sure it will bring back plenty of memories and many thoughts will go through my head. It will, though, be weird to be on the other bench and it will definitely feel weird going into the visitor’s locker room.”
As one of FSU coach Leonard Hamilton’s first recruits at Florida State, Johnson is among the players credited with laying the foundation for current the Seminole program. Since the start of the 2005-06 season, the Seminoles are the third-winningest program in ACC play and won the 2012 ACC Championship for the first time in school history.
As a senior he led the ACC in assist:turnover ratio with a school record 3.2:1 mark as he recorded 125 assists against only 39 turnovers. He became the first Seminole to lead the ACC in assist:turnover ratio and ranked sixth in the conference with a career-high 3.8 assists per game average.
“It feels good to know where the Seminole program was before I got there and to see the steps we took in my two years,” said Johnson. “Since finishing my career at Florida State, watching multiple FSU teams make noise in the ACC and the NCAA Tournament makes me feel good.”
Johnson is in his fifth season as an assistant coach at CMU after serving as an assistant coach at the University of Missouri-Kansas City for one season. The Mules have a combined record of 90-36 with Johnson on the bench. Before going to UMKC, Johnson was an assistant coach at Moberly (Mo.) Area Community College for three seasons, helping the Greyhounds to a pair of regular season conference titles. He got his coaching start during the 2008-09 season as a graduate assistant for both the men’s and women’s teams at Trinity Valley Community College in Texas.
In his first season at CMU in 2013-14, Johnson helped the Mules to a regular conference season championship and to the NCAA Division II National Championship.
Johnson easily recounts numerous memories from his days leading the garnet and gold on the very court he will coach against the Seminoles on Thursday.
His mind immediately races to the back-to-back victories in the Tucker Center over No. 7 North Carolina and No. 10 Wake Forest in January of 2004. He’s quick to remind Florida State fans that the Seminoles won their first 10 games of the season, and, after a victory over No. 24 Maryland in late December, he and his teammates were ranked No. 25 in the nation.
“My fondest memory of my playing career at Florida State was beating North Carolina and Wake Forest at home in the same week.”
He also vividly recalls Florida State’s dramatic, 91-84 win in double overtime over Wichita State in the 2004 NIT. It was the Seminoles’ first postseason win in six years.
More than the victories, Johnson remembers the relationships with his coaches and teammates that he developed and still holds as some of the most important friendships of his life.
“I still speak with Coach Ham and I talk to Coach (Stan) Jones twice or three times every month,” said Johnson.
Hamilton is very proud of the latest member of his ever-growing coaching tree.
“We are all very proud of Nate,” said Hamilton. “We knew when we were recruiting Nate that he had a future in basketball and he has certainly done well as both a player for us and now as a coach on the national level. To help coach a team to a national championship is quite an accomplishment. It will be a proud moment for me and our program when we play Central Missouri.”
Jones echoes Hamilton’s sentiment.
“When we signed Nate Johnson and Tim Pickett in our first spring at FSU, it immediately gave an established base of leadership, toughness and competitive spirit,” said Jones. “I am not surprised to see Nate being a successful coach. As a player, he was helping younger players learn the system by showing them video and walking them through situations. I will always have a fondness and appreciation for Nate for believing in the vision we had for FSU basketball and choosing to be a Seminole.”
Thursday night won’t be Johnson’s first return to the Tucker Center since his graduation in 2004, but it will be the most important.
“I came back in 2006 and also in 2015,” said Johnson. “But I didn’t get to see as much in 2015 because the lights were off.”
It’s safe to say that Johnson’s return to Tucker Center on Thursday takes on an entirely new and much more important meaning with him on the opposition’s bench.