BLACKSBURG, Va. — On April 13, James Johnson thought he had put the Virginia Tech men’s basketball program in his rearview mirror when he left Blacksburg for an assistant coaching job at Clemson. Just 18 days later, however, Virginia Tech Athletic Director Jim Weaver made Johnson’s dreams a reality after he named Johnson as the replacement for Seth Greenberg.
But the bizarre scenario that led to Johnson’s hiring has largely clouded the success story that accompanies his rise to fame here in Southwest Virginia.
The “whirlwind,” as Johnson called the last couple of months, hasn’t stopped since he was hired. Last month his office, just down the hall from the cramped digs he once inhabited, was strewn with information on recruits, plans for Johnson’s future offense and motivational quotes he hopes to plaster on the walls of the team’s headquarters.
“I don’t act any different. I feel like I’m pulled in a lot of different directions, though,” Johnson, a 19-year assistant coach, said in his folksy Virginia accent. “People want James Johnson right now, which is good.”
Whenever Johnson is asked about his years climbing the college basketball ladder – including stints at Old Dominion, College of Charleston, Penn State and George Mason under Jim Larranaga during the 2006 Final Four run — eventually he’ll tell a story about his father.
For 20 years, Johnnie Johnson was a team leader in the housekeeping department at University of Richmond’s Robins Center, the school’s basketball arena and home of the athletic department offices. Johnson took pride in his job, working until 11 most nights and taking on extra shifts if the men’s and women’s basketball teams had a doubleheader.
And so throughout James Johnson’s nomadic trek through the assistant coaching ranks, Johnnie would ask his son the same sort of question every time he called with news from the latest game, win or lose: “How are the arena floors? They look as good as the Robins Center?”
It was this upbringing that prompted James Johnson to meet with Weaver before leaving for Clemson.
He wanted to thank Weaver for the opportunity, something he had done at his six other stops as a college assistant. But this time, he also informed Weaver that he would be moving on even though Virginia Tech planned to match the Tigers’ annual salary offer of $190,000.
That, as it turned, was the final straw for Weaver, who soon decided to terminate Greenberg’s contract, in part because of the lack of a “family environment” within the program.
Johnson insists he didn’t say anything negative about Greenberg in that exit meeting. He simply liked how Clemson Coach Brad Brownell groomed his assistants for bigger things. Rick Ray, for instance, was on Brownell’s staff for only two years before being named the head coach at Mississippi State.
Johnson called insinuations that Greenberg was difficult to work for “overrated,” especially now that he has experience in Greenberg’s shoes.
“We had a great working relationship. Being the head coach now and seeing it’s demanding . . . you’ve got to have guys in those offices that’s gonna get things done, and know how to do it without you holding their hand,” Johnson said.
“There were times where [Greenberg] wanted to know what’s going on and needed to know what’s going on, but as far as being difficult to work for, I didn’t see that. If you don’t do your job and you’re not doing what you’ve been hired to do, there’s gonna be some type of repercussion for that.”
Those closest to Johnson saw a man in turmoil this spring. Johnnie Johnson, for instance, didn’t know what to think when his son went silent during the weeks after he left for Clemson and news broke Greenberg had been fired.
“He kept it all to himself,” Johnnie Johnson said recently. “I was mostly worried about him being worried about himself, but I knew one day he’d be a head coach because he loves basketball so much.”
Love is the only way to describe a work ethic straight out of the Johnnie Johnson manual.
James Johnson, who is single, gets to the office around six in the morning and doesn’t leave until around 11 at night, which isn’t all that different from Johnson’s days as an assistant coach.
Former Virginia Tech assistant Adrian Autry, now at Syracuse, laughs when he recounts seeing Johnson’s car parked at the Hokies’ practice facility at all hours of the night.
“I knew within a couple minutes of working with him that he was destined to be a head coach,” said new Virginia Tech assistant Mark Byington, who worked with Johnson for one year at College of Charleston. “His life is wrapped up in basketball. He has sides to him. He’s great to hang out and have dinner with and he’s got an infectious personality. But I think always in the back of his mind, basketball doesn’t quite leave it.”
Effort and results are two different things, though, and nobody is quite sure what to expect from Johnson, whose head coaching experience consists of one half of one Division III game: As an assistant at his alma mater, Ferrum, in the mid-1990s, he took over for Coach Bill Pullen after Pullen was ejected.
Now he’ll match wits against Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina’s Roy Williams, among others, on a regular basis. Johnson, known mostly as a tireless recruiter, signed a five-year contract worth about $680,000 per season, a figure that makes him the lowest-paid coach in the ACC.
But he is adamant he won’t be intimidated, and instead has been focusing on the up-tempo brand of basketball he hopes to play next season.
“I believe in letting the guys play,” he said. “Jim Larranaga was always an even-keeled guy. Poise was big to him. I want to just continue to build on the success we’ve had here.”
After he was hired, Johnson allowed Dorian Finney-Smith, the most heralded prospect to come to Blacksburg since Dell Curry, and Montrezl Harrell, the program’s top recruit this year, to pursue other options without much of a fight.
Though he’ll have just eight scholarship players next season as a result, Johnson wanted players who would be happy at Virginia Tech, a place that he’s had a great attachment to ever since his first day on campus as an assistant coach — April 16, 2007.
Johnson was driving on Route 460 outside Blacksburg, having retrieved his college transcripts from Ferrum to finalize the hiring process, when he saw “about 50 cop cars rolling down at about 100 mph.”
Johnson turned on the radio to find out he was in the middle of the deadliest mass shooting by a single individual in U.S. history. The campus was locked down, so Johnson got a hotel room and simply watched the news for the next day and a half. From there, the first seeds of the school’s future men’s basketball coach were planted.
“It was unbelievable how everyone handled the situation,” Johnson says now. “Right then I knew I was in a special place. It was an immediate bond to Virginia Tech that I’ll never forget.”