GREENSBORO, N.C. — Discipline ranks among the most difficult transitions for a rookie head coach. As an assistant, he mostly comforted and encouraged. As the big whistle, he needs to scold and challenge.
For all the trials of his first season as the boss, Virginia Tech's James Johnson has not shied away from getting after his Hokies.
And no one was spared. Not starters. Not even Erick Green, the nation's leading scorer.
Some players might have envisioned Johnson as a gullible soft touch. But not for long.
"He was on me all year," forward C.J. Barksdale said Wednesday as Tech prepared for Thursday's first-round ACC tournament game against North Carolina State at Greensboro Coliseum.
A last place finish in the conference standings at 4-14, a 13-18 overall record and next season's arrival of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame into the league fray speak to the mountain confronting Johnson's program. But his firm, unwavering hand has been a plus.
Barksdale, Robert Brown, Jarell Eddie and Cadarian Raines each lost starting jobs at various times. No matter that the Hokies' roster was depleted. No matter that the alternative was occasionally a walk-on.
A Tech assistant for five years before replacing Seth Greenberg, Johnson said his first job was to earn players' trust by caring for them as people, "as opposed to just basketball players who are going to help (me) … win games.
"They know when I'm telling them something it's in the best interests of themselves as a person and best interests of themselves as a player and the best interests of this team.
"I tell them all the time. I'm in a tough position. I gotta make decisions and … those decisions sometimes are going to be tough, and sometimes they may not like those decisions, but it's for the betterment of themselves and the betterment of the team."
Johnson's unhappiness with Barksdale's effort prompted him to bench the sophomore forward for the Hokies' ACC opener at Maryland.
"I really appreciate it (now) because if a coach stops talking to you, that's when you should start worrying," Barksdale said. "Coach, he was on me from beginning to end, and I think I responded well, kept working harder and harder and coming into my own."
Barksdale's production has remained inconsistent — he averaged 14.3 points and 8.8 rebounds in one four-game stretch, 2.1 and 3.7 in an earlier seven-game patch — but not his effort.
"No player really wants to get yelled at," Barksdale said. "But it benefits you in the end. You just have to be a man and suck it up."
Johnson believes others followed Green's lead. Green was second-team All-ACC last season as a junior and the Hokies' lone established returnee. But rather than baby him, Johnson prodded.
"I saw in Erick Green that he had the chance to be a really good player," Johnson said. "Leading the nation in scoring and being the (ACC) player of the year I didn't know. But I wanted to push him to be the best player he could be, and I knew the other guys would fall into place from there.
"It taught the young guys, 'Coach is going to be on me. He's on Erick and (we) see what happened to Erick.' Hopefully in the future that will pay off for those guys, too."
It had better. Without Green next season, this defensively challenged team needs exponential improvement from the likes of Barksdale, Raines, Eddie, Brown and Joey van Zegeren if it's to escape the basement.
Johnson said the 24/7 nature of the job surprised and occasionally overwhelmed him. As an assistant, he focused primarily on recruiting. As the head coach, it's recruiting, practice prep, game-planning, media and whether to wear pink sneakers for breast-cancer awareness.
But his optimism has never waned. Nor his appreciation.
As the Hokies practiced Wednesday, Johnson strolled over and said, a touch of child-like wonder in his eyes and voice, "Just a guy from Powhatan, and here I am coaching my team in the ACC tournament."
Naturally, Johnson wants his future teams to be what this one isn't: a threat to win this event. But if there's angst about that future, he hides it well.
"This team could have easily packed it in and quit," Johnson said. "I could have easily got down on myself or got down on the team. That hasn't been the case."Copyright © 2015, CT Now