GREENSBORO, N.C. — When asked to reflect on his first season as a head coach earlier this week, Virginia Tech’s James Johnson could only admit the year went by a lot faster than he expected. But Wednesday, on the eve of his first ACC tournament, Johnson thought about pink shoes.
Back in February, when Virginia Tech was promoting Breast Cancer Awareness night, an equipment manager wanted to know if the Hokies’ players were allowed to wear them. The question prompted Johnson, 41, to contemplate his own career. Never before had he needed to consider such things during 19 years as an assistant, including the past five in Blacksburg, Va.
“I think what has surprised me is that the program is on my mind 24-7,” Johnson said Wednesday.
Johnson’s initial campaign leading the Hokies could come to an end Thursday when No. 12 seed Virginia Tech faces fifth-seeded North Carolina State in the first round of the ACC tournament. It was a roller-coaster season that forward Cadarian Raines could only describe as “rocky.”
The year began with the program’s best start (7-0) in 30 years and ended with a last-place finish in conference play (4-14). Point guard Erick Green led the nation in scoring and earned ACC player of the year honors, but his success also shined a light on the deficiencies of the rest of the roster, which features just eight scholarship players. The Hokies suffered five losses in overtime or by five points or less and five defeats by 20 or more points.
To make matters worse, at least five former Virginia Tech players who previously transferred or defected from the program (Allan Chaney, Manny Atkins, Tyrone Garland, Ben Boggs and Montrezl Harrell) performed well at other schools. That doesn’t include forward Dorian Finney-Smith, the highest-rated recruit to ever come to Virginia Tech. He transferred to Florida after Johnson was hired and sat out this season because of NCAA rules.
Johnson forced himself to remain upbeat in light of those issues, but Raines said the team noticed their old assistant coach became less laid-back this year. “He didn’t have as much pressure as he do right now,” Raines observed.
But despite the lackluster season, and the increased strength of ACC basketball next year with the additions of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, Athletic Director Jim Weaver said recently he remains “comfortable” with his decision to turn over the program to a first-year coach last May after firing Seth Greenberg.
“We knew that we were gonna have a limited number of scholarship players coming into this season, and I think they’ve done a very solid job under the circumstances,” Weaver said.
Johnson wanted a fast-paced, defensive-minded team that mirrored the style he excelled with as a player at Ferrum College. Instead, the Hokies were forced to slow the tempo as the core of next season’s roster — junior Jarell Eddie, sophomore Robert Brown and Raines — endured extended slumps. They also finished with the ACC’s worst defense at 74.6 points allowed per game.
Nonetheless, several coaches, including North Carolina State’s Mark Gottfried, have noticed Johnson never looked overmatched tactically.
“The record, I’m sure, isn’t something he’s proud of,” Gottfried said Wednesday. “But they’ve battled to the wire almost every single night. He’s allowed Erick Green to go to a whole other level, which didn’t happen prior to him becoming the head coach.”
With Green’s career coming to an end, assistant Kurt Kanaskie noted the Hokies would look like a different team a year from now, with a full recruiting class of players who will allow them to press on defense and hold more competitive practices. The team’s 7-0 start was a bit of fool’s gold for players, especially defensively because “we scored a lot of points and we kind of fell in love with that,” he added.
“I think it’ll be a relief when the first year is over because they can’t say it’s your first game, your first home game, your first ACC game, your first ACC tournament,” said Kanaskie, a former head coach at Drake. “It’s different, being an assistant to a head coach. We can sleep at night. Head coaches don’t sleep a whole lot, so I think he’s done a good job of keeping his emotions under control.”
Johnson has grown accustomed to the long hours necessary to put his stamp on a program, and he called coaching in the ACC tournament this week “a dream come true.” But whenever the job feels too big, he thinks back to a lesson his former boss at George Mason, current Miami Coach Jim Larranaga, reminded him of earlier this season.
“It can be a little overwhelming,” Johnson said. “But you’re not gonna be able to do it all in one day. A few things can be there when you walk back in at 6 in the morning.”