Monday, April 30, 2012
James Johnson gets his turn at Va. Tech
By Eamonn Brennan
James Johnson must be one heck of an exit interview.
Just two weeks ago, Johnson was a departing assistant under former coach Seth Greenberg at Virginia Tech. Now, per the reporting of ESPN's Andy Katz, he's the Hokies' new head man, and the best hope Virginia Tech can come out of its surprising transition with the one thing that most concerned athletic director Jim Weaver about Johnson's predecessor: continuity.
Johnson's move to leave for Clemson this offseason -- which he carried through despite Weaver's attempts to match the Clemson deal and keep Johnson at the school -- capped off an unusual exodus of assistants from the program in recent seasons (six have left in the past four years, to be exact), and gave Weaver the reasoning he needed to end Greenberg's nine-year tenure with the school.
"I did not like, quite honestly, the way things unfolded with coaches leaving an [Atlantic Coast Conference] program that had the promise on the court that this program has for next year," Weaver said at last week's poorly handled, borderline-shotgun announcement that Greenberg had been fired. That spoke to a lack of continuity in the program and an apparent desire to find someone slightly more staffer-friendly -- a polite way to say Greenberg was not particularly well-liked by his assistant coaches -- and gave Weaver the impetus to spring a firing at a thoroughly unexpected time.
This late in the coaching carousel calendar, nearly a month after most vacancies have long since been filled, the move was a risk. But somewhere along the line, Johnson left an indelible impression on the Hokies' AD, and his return to the program he just left comes with its fair share of built-in advantages.
The first is familiarity: Johnson is not just a former Hokies assistant, one who has been at the school since 2007, when Greenberg had his greatest successes in revitalizing a long-dormant program into a consistently relevant entity, if not an NCAA tournament stalwart. Johnson is also a Virginia native with close ties to the state and years of experience coaching in the area at schools that have recently eclipsed the Hokies' postseason performance (including George Mason and Old Dominion). He is regarded by many in the profession as a talented, up-and-coming recruiter.
Those are the long-term reasons Weaver zeroed in on Johnson. In the short term, Johnson's hire gives Virginia Tech a much better chance of retaining its two 2012 commitments, forwards Montrezl Harrell and Marshall Wood. Neither player is sure to make an immediate impact, but Harrell is ranked among the ESPNU top 100 in the class of 2012 (he's the No. 18-ranked power forward, to be exact), and at the very least keeping the newcomers around should help the Hokies remain relevant in the immediate term. As Andy wrote, the Hokies "also return guard Erick Green, forward Cadarian Raines and freshman Dorian Finney-Smith to a team that should have a chance to be in the upper half of the ACC" in 2012.
That is the essential bar for this program, the one Greenberg created in his nine years at the school. Competing with Duke and North Carolina (and, in 2012, NC State and Florida State) is not always a realistic proposition. Competing for NCAA tournament berths -- as Greenberg proved, often unsuccessfully -- is. Little is known about how Johnson will manage this program and its expectations in the years to come. But if things go as planned, the Hokies won't have to go through the long, painful rebuilding process that Weaver risked when he pulled the plug on Greenberg with such short notice in late April.
All things considered, it's unlikely the Hokies could have done much better. Now it's up to Johnson to prove that the impression he made on Weaver two weeks ago is enough to justify a coaching change that ended with the first head-coaching gig of his career.
Oh, and if the head-coaching thing doesn't work out, Johnson can always hit the seminar circuit. Whatever he said on his way to Clemson, it clearly left a mark.