When Adrian Autry started working at Virginia Tech as the director of men’s basketball operations with new Coach James Johnson in 2009, he would sometimes drive past the Hokies’ practice facility and inevitably see Johnson’s car in the parking lot. It was Autry’s first college job, and Johnson’s ever-present “get after it” mentality rubbed off on him.
“He was always there -- the first one there, the last one to leave. He works probably seven days a week,” said Autry, now an assistant under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. “I just really admired his work ethic.”
This seems to be the consensus now that Johnson is taking over Virginia Tech’s men’s basketball program. Since he’s a first-time head coach, nobody is quite certain exactly how he’ll operate or what coaches he may try to emulate. But during his 19 years in the coaching business Johnson has left an indelible impression at most of the places he has worked, combining an insatiable work ethic with a humble charisma to move his way up the coaching ladder.
It certainly paid off at Virginia Tech, where Athletic Director Jim Weaver revealed the current players had a big role in Johnson getting his first shot to be a head coach in the ACC. Forward Jarell Eddie said the team met with associate athletic director Tom Gabbard a day after former Coach Seth Greenberg’s firing to let the administration know that “if Greenberg had to leave, we had made it up in our minds that we wanted Johnson.”
“It’s been tough. It’s been stressful,” Eddie added. “It’s been hard having no direction, going to the practice facility to get a workout in but not having nobody to come out and just watch or just say hello. But I think it will be a seamless transition just because of our comfort with him, just knowing Coach Johnson and trusting Coach Johnson. Whatever he tells us to do, we’re gonna be ready to do and happy to do because we know who we are and trust him.”
Building connections have been a trademark for Johnson. His old boss at George Mason, Jim Larranaga, still speaks glowingly about the rapport Johnson built with players during his two years in Fairfax -- which included a run to the 2006 Final Four — whether he had recruited them or they had been in the program before Johnson got on campus.
Autry noted that Johnson’s prowess on the recruiting trail should serve him well as a head coach. “If you can recruit, you can connect,” he said. “He knows these kids. They know him.”
Leading scorer Erick Green concurred, even though Johnson’s head coaching experience is limited to the second half of a Division III game in which the actual head coach was thrown out of the game. Like Weaver, Green thinks Johnson’s presence will be a boon in terms of stability and keeping the Hokies’ 2012 recruits in the fold.
“I really have a lot of faith and belief in this guy. So do my teammates,” Green said of Johnson. “We really believe it’s gonna turn around, and you know, it’s nothing taking away from what Coach Greenberg did, not ever comparing, but I really believe they’re just two different personalities and I just think he understands us. He understands the life we’re gonna be living. Not saying Coach Greenberg didn’t at all, but I just feel Coach Johnson is the right fit.
“He just knows how to have fun. It’s not all about basketball.”
The key for Johnson, according to Larranaga, is to assemble a top notch coaching staff to aid him in what can be an overwhelming job.
“I would say the most important responsibility he has is in finding assistant coaches to complement his abilities,” Larranaga said. “One thing you find as a head coach is you just can’t do it all. There’s just too much work to be done.”
The way Johnson described his style of play Tuesday, the product on the court won’t look all that different from when Greenberg roamed the sidelines. Johnson wants to get out on the fastbreak whenever possible, and will emphasize defense, the hallmark of his playing career at Ferrum College.
He also has a good nucleus coming back, although if Johnson can’t convince 2012 recruits Montrezl Harrell and Marshall Wood to honor their commitments, Virginia Tech could have a roster with just eight scholarship players next year.
“I think this team has a chance to be pretty good,” Johnson said about the 2012-13 season. “We have a veteran guard in Erick Green coming back – an all-league player. We’ve got a post player in the middle in Cadarian Raines who came on strong at the end of the season, and we’ve got a good group of young players who grew up last year.”