New Virginia Tech Athletic Director Whit Babcock called the decision “gut-wrenching.” He wanted to enjoy the honeymoon period after officially taking over the department exactly one month earlier. He didn’t want to make drastic changes and stick his foot in what he called “the frying pan.”
But when Babcock fired Virginia Tech men’s basketball Coach James Johnson on Monday after just two seasons, the reasoning was fairly straightforward following the worst campaign this program has experienced in 59 years.
“Everything he did off the court, I was incredibly pleased with,” Babcock said of Johnson during a news conference Tuesday in Blacksburg, Va. “This sounds tough, but it’s true: This simply came down to wins and losses.”
Johnson compiled a 22-41 record after replacing former Coach Seth Greenberg following the 2011-12 season, including a 9-22 mark this season when the Hokies finished in last place in the ACC for the third straight campaign. He is just the fifth coach in ACC history to be fired before his third season on the job.
Babcock sat down with Johnson at length Sunday night and then informed the coach of his decision at 11 a.m. Monday morning. He said that while the Hokies would be “incrementally” better next season, he did not believe Johnson and his staff would ultimately get the program back to the NCAA tournament and into the top half of the ACC standings.
By Tuesday, Babcock’s focus had turned toward finding a replacement. Though he didn’t rule out hiring an assistant, his preference is to hire someone with head coaching experience.
Babcock said the school would be willing to spend more money on the right hire after Johnson earned an annual salary of $680,000, the lowest in the ACC. There are also plans in place to upgrade the sound system and lighting at Cassell Coliseum to improve the fan experience after attendance dropped significantly since Greenberg’s tenure ended.
But Babcock spent much of his 35-minute question-and-answer session on Tuesday talking about “grinders” and “scrapers,” and that while his wish list certainly includes some high-profile names, “even more important . . . is the list of candidates that will truly take our job if offered.”
“I like hiring guys that have had to hustle somewhere,” Babcock said. “I think to come in and take over our program right now, they’re gonna have to be blue-collar, roll up their sleeves and have a hunger for something not many people have been here to attain . . . for the last 25 years.”
Babcock set no timetable for naming Johnson’s successor, noting the search could last past next month’s Final Four. He would not disclose whether the school will hire a search firm to help identify candidates, but said the process has already begun.
“I do not have a coach in my hip pocket right now,” Babcock added.
Just how much money Virginia Tech is ultimately willing to spend could determine its candidate pool, but names that might come up include Marquette’s Buzz Williams, former UCLA Coach Ben Howland, Dayton Coach Archie Miller, Wofford Coach Mike Young (who grew up in Radford, Va.), Southern Miss Coach Donnie Tyndall and Louisiana Tech’s Mike White, the son of Duke Athletic Director Kevin White.
The Hokies have qualified for the NCAA tournament just twice in the past 25 years, and the task will get no easier with Louisville joining what Babcock called “a shark tank” of a league that is filled with Hall of Fame coaches. So after Johnson lasted just two years, Babcock insisted whoever the new coach is will have plenty of time to rebuild the program.
“We better get it right because I’m gonna give him some time to get it right,” Babcock said. “It needs to work out and we need to set the course for Virginia Tech basketball for a very long time.”