Not once, though, did Johnson mention the sort of jitters expected from someone who had never coached a college game before Saturday.
“He knew we were concerned, so he tried not to show it,” his sister, Vanessa Johnson, said. “He was all business.”
The Hokies followed his lead, rolling through East Tennessee State, 80-62, to start the James Johnson era off in resounding fashion at Cassell Coliseum.
Point guard Erick Green was the catalyst all afternoon, scoring Virginia Tech’s first seven points and finishing with a game-high 21 points and six assists. Forward Jarell Eddie notched his second career double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds on a day when the Hokies were never threatened after halftime.
After the game, once a contingent of supporters serenaded Johnson with chants of “JJ, JJ,” Virginia Tech’s players awarded him the game ball, one of the few signs that a new chapter in Hokies basketball, and Johnson’s life, had begun.
“He didn’t allude to this being his first game. He didn’t talk about it,” said sophomore Robert Brown, who chipped in 16 points and hit a game-high four three-pointers. “You couldn’t tell. He didn’t really make this all about him.”
Johnson promised a fast-paced offense in his first season, even though Virginia Tech has just eight scholarship players on its roster. The Hokies were also short-handed Saturday because point guard Marquis Rankin missed the game after two deaths in his family over the past week.
Even though Virginia Tech mustered just nine fast-break points, it tried to push the tempo whenever possible. The Hokies were stymied at times by East Tennessee’s 2-3 zone, but after a slow start, they blew open the game midway through the first half.
The Hokies shot 51.9 percent before halftime and went 10 of 25 from three-point range, catching fire during a 13-4 run that effectively put away East Tennessee State. Eddie and Brown capped off the surge by hitting three-consecutive three-pointers, a stretch that forced the Pirates to call a timeout and led to the first standing ovation of Johnson’s head coaching career.
Virginia Tech didn’t emerge from the win without concerns. The Hokies were out-rebounded by a team that featured no players taller than 6-foot-8 and struggled at times to keep East Tennessee from penetrating into the lane.
But it mattered little for the time being, even if Johnson played down the significance of his successful debut.
As he embraced supporters courtside following a postgame radio interview, Johnson was asked whether he wanted to meet with reporters or spend some more time with family and friends in attendance. Without hesitation, he headed straight to the news conference, his focus squarely on the task at hand.
“Can’t win ’em all,” Johnson said as he departed. “But we got the first one.”