No time to savor hire for James Johnson

October, 5, 2012
10/05/12
1:18
PM ET
Someday James Johnson will sit back and enjoy the moment he’s waited on for 19 years. He’ll savor the fact that, finally, after a career of climbing and trying, he’s a head coach at a Division I institution.

He’s just not sure when someday will come.

Since his whirlwind hire at Virginia Tech -- less than two weeks after he was named an assistant coach at Clemson – Johnson has had little time to stop, let alone stop and smell the roses.

[+] EnlargeJames Johnson
Kyle LaFerriere/US PresswireIt's been a whirlwind summer for Virginia Tech James Johnson as he tries prepare for the upcoming season.
“I really haven’t had time to enjoy it yet," Johnson said. “The way it happened, the timing, I really had to hit the ground running and I haven’t had a chance to take that deep breath and say, ‘Wow, you’re the head coach at Virginia Tech.' I’m hoping to get to that point."

Johnson was hired after a surprising, and somewhat tumultuous end to Seth Greenberg’s career. Virginia Tech made the announcement that came not only late in the coaching carousel cycle but was scheduled without Greenberg even knowing it was coming.

Johnson walked into the middle of that bungled mess. He had who spent five years in Blacksburg, Va. on Greenberg’s staff. The hope was his presence and continuity would help make the transition go more smoothly for the players.

Except that didn’t pan out entirely. Dorian Finney-Smith, the team’s leading rebounder, transferred to Florida and Montrezl Harrell, the Hokies’ big recruit, opted for Louisville.

“That was tough, tough for the players who were coming back, especially when you lose a guy who was in the program who was talented but also well liked,’’ Johnson said. “When they first heard, they took it hard but since then, they’ve taken ownership that this is our team. This is who we are this year.’’

Who they are is young and thin. Johnson didn’t sign anyone this summer, opting to go with what he had instead of making emergency pitches to players who might only be temporary Band Aids.

That decision leaves Johnson with a young roster of eight scholarship players in the ACC -- a conference that is reasserting itself as the best in the country if not this season then certainly the next when Syracuse and Pittsburgh join the ranks.

There is a good and a bad to such a youth movement. The good is Johnson has a clean slate to work with, guys who will grow up in his system.

The bad? Well, that’s obvious.

“We’ve got to play in a very tough conference with some very good coaches,’’ he said. “That makes getting through that lack of depth and youth hard.’’

But Johnson is no stranger to doing the impossible. He served as an assistant when George Mason did just that. It's been a pioneer in what’s become a steady pilgrimage of mid-majors to the Final Four.

It’s about talent, of course, but Johnson said it’s also about belief.

“A lot has to go right for you because every team out there is working hard with a lot of talent,’’ he said. “But the most important thing, you have to believe you can do it. If you do that, I think the sky is the limit.’’

Of course folks in Blacksburg are willing to start with baby steps. Fairly or unfairly, Virginia Tech has become the poster bubble program, a team that always has an argument to be put in the NCAA tournament field and an argument to be held out.

Lately the Hokies have been on the losing end of the debate, absent of the tourney since 2007.

If Johnson just can erase the uncertainty, he’ll be wildly popular.

“The number one thing, of course, is winning. Win games and you take that out of the equation,’’ he said. “But it’s also about scheduling. That was done for this year when I got here, but we need to sit down and look at that a little bit.’’

Another item on the endless to-do list for Johnson, another reason he’ll have to keep bypassing those roses without taking a sniff.

Dana O'Neil | email

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