James Johnson has 19 years of experience coaching basketball, but in the midst of being introduced as Virginia Tech’s new men’s basketball coach Tuesday afternoon, Johnson flashed a sheepish smile when asked to think back to his only prior head coaching experience.
It was his first gig as an assistant coach at Division III Ferrum, Johnson’s alma mater, when former Coach Bill Pullen was thrown out of a game against Maryville (Tenn.). Johnson was suddenly thrust into the leading role with the Panthers trailing by 20. They ended up losing in overtime, but Johnson never panicked, an unwavering confidence he’ll have to call on often now that he’s the youngest head coach in the ACC.
Johnson, 40, was officially re-introduced to Hokies fans Tuesday after a bizarre two-and-a-half weeks during which he left former Coach Seth Greenberg’s staff for a similar position at Clemson only to take over his old boss’s job before he even had a chance to put his Christiansburg, Va., home on the market. But Johnson, who spent the past five years as a Hokies assistant, believes he’s ready for this promotion.
“I don’t think there’s any better person for the job than myself,” said Johnson, a Powhatan, Va., native. “I know this university. I know these players. I recruited every one of these guys in some respect.
“I go from now being a suggestion maker to a decision maker,” he added. “Instead of me being one of the four guys yelling in the head coach’s ear, ‘Do this, do that,’ I’ll have four guys yelling in my ear.”
Johnson agreed to a five-year contract worth $3.4 million, or about $680,000 per season, a figure that makes Johnson the lowest-paid coach in the conference. But as was the case with his departure to Clemson, money was not the determining factor in Johnson’s re-hiring.
After meeting with Johnson last Thursday evening in Charlotte, Athletic Director Jim Weaver decided over the weekend that Johnson was the “right choice in the moment in time” because of the stability it would provide the program and his familiarity with the current players. Forward Jarell Eddie said Tuesday that the team met with associate athletic director Tom Gabbard last week to say they would prefer to play for Johnson.
“Every head coach got a break at some point or another,” said Weaver, who declined to name other candidates he considered for the job.
Johnson shied away from getting into any specific changes he’ll implement. But it was striking that Greenberg’s name was not mentioned until more than 30 minutes into the news conference, and only after a reporter asked a question directly related to the former coach.
Johnson did, however, mention that he would emphasize defense, a hallmark that leading scorer Erick Green said was evident during Johnson’s tenure as an assistant.
“I know one thing for sure: If you ain’t playing defense, you won’t play for James Johnson, because that’s one thing he takes pride in,” Green said. “Offensively I think it will be a fast-paced game. I know in practice when he coaches, he yells at us when we don’t get up and down the floor.”
Johnson will begin to assemble an assistant coaching staff this week and call 2012 recruits Montrezl Harrell and Marshall Wood to convince them to honor their commitments to Virginia Tech. Wood has already been granted a release from his national letter of intent by the school.
As for Johnson’s latest transition to the head-coaching spotlight, his old boss at George Mason, current Miami Coach Jim Larranaga, doesn’t think it’ll be a problem. He still remembers when Johnson joined his staff as an assistant in 2006, replacing longtime Larranaga assistant Bill Courtney, and immediately had an impact as the Patriots made a run to the Final Four.
“That’s not easy to do in your first year,” Larranaga said Tuesday. “He makes adjustments very, very quickly.”
The Hokies, it seems, are counting on that.