Virginia Tech men’s basketball Coach James Johnson squirmed in his chair, nursing a sore back and throbbing forehead. It might be a concussion, he admitted, but at least the golf-ball-size welt that protruded from his shaved head subsided before the ACC’s annual media day event last month.
He had run into a wall headfirst trying to track down a shot during one of his habitual stress-reducing racquetball games, befitting a coach who says “the crappiness of losing is more than the happiness” of winning.
Johnson, a 41-year-old bachelor, is a workout warrior, his schedule built around early-morning lifts and jogs around campus. He still has the build of the Division III point guard he used to be.
But during his first year as a head coach, the workout routine became an escape.
“I would never let the players see me down . . . but there were times where I would have to. It was tough keeping things in perspective and keeping myself up,” Johnson said. “There were times when that me time in that weight room or those runs around campus were tough and kind of pump-myself-up time.”
Nothing about Johnson’s first 18 months on the job at Virginia Tech has come easy.
He had to deal with the awkward circumstances of replacing his former boss, Seth Greenberg, just two weeks after leaving Blacksburg for a job at Clemson. He then watched the two best players affiliated with the program — forward Dorian Finney-Smith and top recruit Montrezl Harrell — elect to play at Florida and Louisville, respectively, leaving him with just eight scholarship players for the 2012-13 campaign.
Virginia Tech began last season with seven consecutive wins only to go 6-19 the rest of the way. Once the offseason arrived, Johnson couldn’t prevent guard Robert Brown, the team’s third-leading scorer last season, from transferring. Also, assistant coach Mark Byington departed for the coaching job at Georgia Southern. By July, the Hokies had also lost Johnson’s highest-rated 2013 recruit when Donte Clark was denied admission.
Johnson knows the worst of this rebuilding process may not have arrived yet, especially since the ACC welcomes Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh to the mix this season and will add defending national champion Louisville a year from now. Nonetheless, Athletic Director Jim Weaver remains supportive.
“It takes time for a new person to make it happen the way all parties want it to happen, and I think JJ is gonna end up being an outstanding head coach,” Weaver said in an interview last week. “There’s never a good time to make a change, and usually there’s never the ideal circumstances when you do make a change. So you’ve got to play with the hand of cards that you’ve been dealt.”
During the down times, Johnson often would phone his former mentor at George Mason, Miami Coach Jim Larranaga. It was a role reversal, Larranaga said, because it was often the effervescent Johnson who “probably picked me up more than I picked him up” when the two worked together in Fairfax for two seasons, including George Mason’s Final Four run in 2006.
“As the head coach, you take on so many responsibilities. You feel like everything is my fault,” Larranaga said. “It takes a lot of experience to figure out how best to handle that correctly.”
Johnson likes to remind people he really isn’t that young, that several schools hired assistants 10 years younger than him this offseason. Few, though, start out in the ACC, and forward Joey van Zegeren already has noticed Johnson “seems more experienced and we as a team have gotten used to his role as the head coach.”
Molding the program in his image remains a work in progress.
“We got some guys in our program, they played a certain way and used to certain things for three years, and I’m still trying to get things my way,” Johnson said.
This season, Virginia Tech’s outlook appears worse than a year ago.
Johnson must replace ACC player of the year Erick Green, the nation’s leading scorer in 2012-13, with a core of players from a team that finished in last place in ACC. He has buttressed the roster with the addition of UNC Wilmington transfer Adam Smith and five freshmen, including captain Ben Emelogu, to go along with veterans Jarell Eddie, C.J. Barksdale, Cadarian Raines and Marshall Wood.
Losing, though, will never be easy for Johnson. So last month, with attention fixed on Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim across a hotel ballroom, the lone reporter at Johnson’s table showed him that all but 11 voters in the ACC’s annual media poll had picked Virginia Tech to finish last in the conference again this year.
Johnson sat up in his chair, glanced at the sheet of paper for a few moments and then announced, “Take that away.”
“It’s probably gonna be painful at times. It’ll be beneficial, too,” he said. “I don’t take this for granted. I remember the days, and one day I will hopefully get the program to that point where I can look back and say, ‘I remember the days when I was at my table and one or two guys were there.’ ”