May 2, 2012
James Johnson didn't act like the ACC's youngest, least-experienced and probably lowest-paid head basketball coach Tuesday.
Conversely, Virginia Tech's new boss appeared comfortable during his introductory news conference. Comfortable in the spotlight, confident in himself.
Don't misunderstand. There wasn't a whisper of brashness. He wasn't glib, emotional or long-winded.
Some may interpret that as anxiety. But I saw comfort mixed with humility.
How that understated approach translates to the job is anyone's guess. How will Johnson respond if Tech trails by 20 at Duke and Cameron is coming unhinged? What happens if a player must be disciplined?
Those are pertinent questions when you elevate a career assistant to any head-coaching position, let alone one in the ACC.
"I've worked for some really good coaches," Johnson said. "I've coached in the Final Four. I've coached in some big games. I've done preparation for some big games.
"I don't anticipate anything new somebody's going to throw at me or I'm going to throw at them. My job is going to be to get these guys to do what I want them to do to the best of their abilities."
Indeed, the 40-year-old Johnson is accustomed to oversized moments, albeit as an assistant.
In his first season under Jim Larranaga at George Mason, the Patriots reached the 2006 Final Four, toppling past national champions Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut. In five seasons under Seth Greenberg at Virginia Tech, he saw the Hokies defeat two No. 1s, Wake Forest in 2009, Duke in 2011.
"He's earned his stripes," athletic director Jim Weaver said, "and it's time he became a head coach."
A former aid to Joe Paterno at Penn State, Weaver has taken a recent shining to assistants, promoting them to lead the Hokies' teams in men's and women's soccer, women's lacrosse and men's and women's basketball.
None of those coaches will be scrutinized like Johnson, and with Weaver set to retire in 2015, and football icon Frank Beamer contracted through 2016, this likely is Weaver's legacy hire.
Sitting head coaches were interested. Former ones, too. But after meeting with Johnson on Thursday evening in Charlotte, N.C., Weaver went with his gut and chose a rookie to replace Greenberg, whom he fired last week after nine seasons.
Maybe if you or I had observed the interviews and vetted the candidates, we'd have decided similarly. Maybe not.
Head women's basketball coach Dennis Wolff, another of Weaver's hunch hires, worked with Johnson during the 2010-11 season, when Wolff was Greenberg's operations director. A former men's head coach at Boston University and assistant at Virginia and Wake Forest, Wolff is an astute judge of coaching talent.
In Johnson, Wolff sees an effective recruiter who commands players' respect. The lone question in Wolff's mind is how Johnson will manage a game against the likes of Miami's Larranaga, North Carolina's Roy Williams and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.
From "suggestion-maker to decision-maker" was Johnson's description of the change. From becoming one of three assistants barking in a coach's ear to a manager processing that advice to form a coherent plan.
Like Greenberg, Johnson figures to recruit primarily from Baltimore to Charlotte, passing on the All-Americans who flock to Kentucky, Duke and Carolina. Unlike Greenberg, he'll face an ACC that eventually includes Big East powers Syracuse and Pittsburgh.
The conference's expansion makes Johnson's job more difficult, as does working for an athletic director preparing for retirement. If Johnson staggers at the start, his new boss might not think twice of buying out what remains of the five-year contract that pays Johnson $680,000 annually.
But if Johnson can keep young talents such as Dorian Finney-Smith and Montrezl Harrell in the fold, he has a chance to avoid those early struggles. Moreover, he can lean on his past head-coaching experience.
It came during the early 1990s, when Johnson was an assistant at his alma mater, Division III Ferrum College, and head coach Bill Pullen was ejected early in the second half of a game at Maryville (Tenn.) With Pullen back in the locker room, Johnson helped orchestrate a 20-point comeback that fell short in an overtime loss.
"James has always been a guy who understood team," said Pullen, who attended Tuesday's unveiling.
Now Johnson runs the team. After a 2 1/2-week detour to Brad Brownell's Clemson staff, he returns to his former employer and home — the "For Sale" sign never was posted.
"I don't think there was any better person for the job," Johnson said, "than myself."
David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
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