Johnson leaves Princeton for Fairfield

April, 15, 2011
04/15/11
12:29
PM ET
Sydney Johnson cried during an on-court interview after Princeton beat Harvard on a last-second shot in a thrilling, one-game playoff for an NCAA bid on March 12.

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Sydney Johnson
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaSydney Johnson surprised many when he left alma mater Princeton to become head coach at Fairfield.

He cried again at a postgame news conference after Princeton lost to Kentucky in the final seconds in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

He said he may get just as emotional in his new position as head coach at Fairfield, now that he has left his alma mater in a stunning move to replace Ed Cooley.

"My emotions, as they relate to coaching, are genuine," said Johnson by phone from his new office in Fairfield, Conn. "One thing you'll be surprised by is the connection I have and will have with our guys at Fairfield whether I wore that jersey or not. I can relate to what the guys are going through; the grind of being a student and a player.

"I don't feel like that since I left my alma mater, that it makes me any less sincere in how much I invest emotionally in coaching," said Johnson, who will turn 37 on April 26. "I don't accept that."

Johnson's move from Princeton to Fairfield has been one of the most surprising of any during the spring coaching carousel, mostly because of Johnson's public display of emotion while leading his alma mater into the postseason. However, a closer examination of the move makes it much more explainable.

Princeton's pay scale for Johnson was estimated at around $200,000. According to sources, Johnson was able to secure more than double his salary at Fairfield and will be paid in the $400,000 range that Cooley was making before he returned to his native Rhode Island to coach Providence.

Princeton athletic director Gary Walters, also an alumnus, didn't want to comment further on Johnson's departure. He was not pleased that Johnson's representatives were sending out feelers about openings at Towson and Bradley prior to the Fairfield opening. Walters has long held firm to the belief that coaching at Princeton is a privilege. Having someone like legendary former coach Pete Carril, who guided the Tigers from 1967 to 1996, is a luxury that won't occur anymore.

John Thompson III, who like Johnson played at Princeton, was the Tigers' head coach for four seasons before taking over at Georgetown, where his father had built a legacy.

"It was extremely difficult for me to leave Princeton," Thompson III said. "People didn't initially believe that since I was going Ivy to the Big East. But Princeton in many ways was, and still is, home for me and leaving that program was extremely difficult for me."

Johnson was a part of Carril's final team that scored an historic upset over defending champion UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament. He was part of Thompson's staff at Georgetown before taking over a Princeton program that was in shambles. He coached the Tigers to six wins in Year 1, 13 in Year 2 (8-6 in the Ivy), a 22-9 record (11-3 in the Ivy) and a CBI semifinal appearance against Saint Louis in Year 3.

In 2011, he matched Harvard game for game; the Tigers shared the regular-season title with the Crimson but earned the Ivy's NCAA bid after winning a one-game playoff. The Tigers finished 25-7 (12-2 in Ivy).

"As a graduate of the class of '88, it was a great four years to watch," Thompson III said of Johnson's Princeton tenure. "World order was restored. We have a long, proud tradition and one of the best basketball programs in the country. Sydney said it best before the playoff game: There is an expectation to win and added pressure to win and it's different sitting in that Princeton locker room. He's leaving the program where it should be at this point."

Walters said he's going through a national head-coaching search but the Princeton alumni in college basketball want Johnson's successor to be one of three Princeton alums: Thompson III assistant Mike Brennan, Bill Carmody assistant Mitch Henderson or Johnson assistant Brian Earl.

"One of the things that we're proud to be associated with is the success of the former players as head coaches," Thompson III said. "Given that opportunity, they've been successful."

Johnson saw things at Fairfield -- such as a higher salary and the ability to cast a wider net in recruiting -- that he didn't see at Princeton, while Ivy League rival Harvard is taking steps in that direction, according to those close to the program.

Johnson wouldn't go into detail about his departure, but said he was impressed after listening to Fairfield's vision.

"Clearly Fairfield is aspiring to be something just as meaningful in terms of educating kids, student-athlete mentoring and aspiring to be something bigger," Johnson said. "There is momentum here. Clearly, Ed put it in place."

Fairfield won the MAAC regular-season title and reached the second round of the NIT, finishing with a 25-8 record. Fairfield hadn't won a conference title since 1996 and had never won one outright.

The Stags will be the favorite again with the return of guard Derek Needham, Ryan Olander, Colin Nickerson and the transfer of Rakim Sanders from Boston College.

"Ed and the university helped improve and change the lives of these young men and there are resources here around this program that will help them," Johnson said. "I'm not embarrassed to want to be associated with that."

He sees a chance to develop Fairfield even more.

"I can be emotionally attached to this school and I do believe there's a lot of room to grow behind what Ed Cooley did," Johnson said. "I have nothing negative to say about Princeton. I don't think conference affiliation matters. With all due respect to the Big East and the ACC, just because those teams are in those leagues doesn't make them great basketball programs. Sure, they get a bump. But Butler and VCU have shown that if you pop the hood and look underneath you can see something better. Fairfield looks a little different but it looks good and might not to others. But once you start talking to the recruits, the alumni, you see what this program is about."

Still, the emotion that Johnson felt after the Harvard win and near-miss against Kentucky was real.

"Those are the type of moments in your coaching career that you'll always remember," Johnson said. "Those players were working their entire lives for those moments and didn't know it. It validated everything we did from that first 6-23 season."

Johnson doesn't have to rebuild Fairfield. The Stags are ready to win again next season, and Johnson said he'll be just as emotionally attached in his new venture as he was at Princeton.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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