CHARLOTTE — It’s 5:30 a.m. and the Virginia Tech men’s basketball team is wandering onto the court, eyes bloodshot, bodies dragging for another early-morning practice, when a sultry singing voice echoes through the arena: “As I look around, they don't do it like my . . . Clique, clique, clique, clique, clique.”
The singing jerks the Hokies out of their walking slumber. It’s James Johnson, Virginia Tech’s first-year coach, singing Kanye West again. He’s dancing, too. He usually dances. Senior guard Erick Green called him an all-ACC dancer and singer, a showman behind closed doors.
“He’s like one of us,” Green said of the coach who replaced Seth Greenberg in the offseason. “Hanging out with us, it feels like he’s one of the guys. He’s our coach, and he still gets on us, but he doesn’t treat anybody different. The transition’s been smooth.”
Johnson, a longtime assistant at Virginia Tech, has brought a down-to-earth, relatable personality to the head coaching gig. Green will often hang out in his office, socializing, talking about family or whatever comes to mind. But on the floor, before the sun rises over Blacksburg, Johnson is human Red Bull.
“Now we can have that energy,” said Green, a second-team all-ACC selection last season after averaging a team-high 15.6 points per game. “We feed off that energy. If he’s dead in the morning, we don’t want to be there. But with that energy, we know we’re here to practice. It’s 5:30, so what? Let’s get out here and put some work in, then we’re done for the whole day.”
There’s also been a tangible increase in the running department. Every practice is a grueling workout. The Hokies don’t run sets. They go up and down the floor, competitive three-on-three, full-court box-out drills that breed sweat and exhaustion. Lose a drill, and it’s suicides or “16s,” sets of 16 down-and-backs from sideline to sideline.
“He has a mind for that day,” Green said, “whatever’s in store.”
Under Greenberg, the Hokies practiced around 1 or 3 p.m. Johnson has a 7 p.m. Thursday night practice, but most are in the mornings. Thirteen of Virginia Tech’s games this season start at 2:30 p.m. or earlier, so Green figures the early-morning wake-up call will help in the long run.
Early on, the Hokies wondered what their new coach was doing. But it’s just that – new. As difficult as it may be to rise, or sometimes lazily fall, out of bed that early and actually have a strong practice, “it’s not easy playing at North Carolina or Duke,” Green said.
Johnson never sang much before as an assistant. Now, one step through the door means hearing Kanye or Jay-Z, upbeat and bobbing his head. Color Green impressed that Johnson keeps so up to date with today’s hit music.
“We’re all sitting there laughing on the sidelines,” Green said. “We’re stretching and bobbing our head with him.”