May 1, 2012
Two weeks ago, Virginia Tech athletic director Jim Weaver matched Clemson's salary offer to James Johnson, the Hokies' associate head basketball coach. Johnson declined and headed south for an assistant's job with an ACC rival.
Last weekend, Weaver upped the ante. He offered Johnson his first head-coaching position.
No Don Corleone proposition this, but suffice to say, Johnson wasn't about to refuse.
So less than a week after firing a 22-year head-coaching veteran, Seth Greenberg, Weaver hired a rookie. Moreover, he chose a former Greenberg assistant, one whose departure contributed to Greenberg's demise.
Funny how life works, isn't it?
Coaching hires are like recruiting classes. Everyone wants to judge them instantly rather than allowing them to marinate.
Short-term, Johnson makes perfect sense. He knows the program's returning players, signees and recruiting targets, and his return figures to prevent the mass defections that accompany some leadership transitions.
Long-term is the question. Can Johnson assemble the top-flight staff that's paramount for any boss, especially a neophyte? Can he juggle myriad administrative duties and manage a game against Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams?
Weaver doesn't know the answers, and nor do we. But Weaver does know that he is replacing a polarizing figure with a unifying one, and that calculation can not be overstated.
For all that he accomplished in nine seasons at Tech, Greenberg did not mesh with the athletic department team — he lost six assistants in his last four years — a shortcoming that gnawed at Weaver. Conversely, Johnson was popular throughout, and more than a few employees encouraged Weaver to give him a long look.
"People say this all the time, but in this case it's true. I don't know anybody who doesn't like J.J.," said American coach Jeff Jones, a long-time friend.
How intensely Weaver pursued experienced head coaches is another unknown. He inquired of several, according to sources, including VCU's Shaka Smart and Richmond's Chris Mooney.
With time critical, Weaver quickly chose Johnson, who not only spent five seasons at Virginia Tech but also hails from the state (Powhatan) and graduated from Ferrum College.
Those Hokie roots are what make 2012 different from 1999, when Weaver hired Ricky Stokes to replace Bobby Hussey. Stokes also lacked big-whistle experience, but as a Virginia graduate, he didn't understand, or perhaps even appreciate, Tech's culture. Not so Johnson.
A more valid comparison is 1990, when Virginia turned to Jones, a 29-year-old former Cavaliers point guard and assistant coach steeped in the program's ways. He was fired eight years later, but his tenure included five NCAA tournament bids, an Elite Eight, Sweet 16 and NIT championship.
Think Hokie Nation would sign up for that run over the next eight seasons?
The most glaring difference: Jones inherited a program that had made four of the previous five NCAA tournaments, while the Hokies have been only once in the last 15 years.
"The biggest part is going to be coming to grips with how taxing moving over one seat can be," Jones said of the transition to head coach. "There's never enough hours in the day to take care of all the things you need to as a head coach.
"There are a lot of brush fires. You have to make sure none of them turns into a flaming inferno."
While an unusual choice — the only other ACC vacancies in the last 20 years filled by a rookie head coach were North Carolina's Bill Guthridge in 1997 and Miami's Frank Haith in 2004 — Johnson is no kid. He's 40, has been in the racket for 19 years and worked for quality people such as Jeff Capel at Old Dominion, Ed DeChellis at Penn State and Jim Larranaga at George Mason.
"The thing I personally like is, he hasn't gotten here by hitching his wagon to a player or AAU program," Jones said. "He's taken it step-by-step and moved up through hard work."
Now at Miami, Larranaga welcomes his former assistant to the ACC fraternity.
"As soon as I spoke to him, I knew he was the person I wanted to hire," Larranaga said of 2005. "I'm a people person, and James' personality … everyone liked him. He immediately made an impact. He worked tirelessly in recruiting."
In Johnson's first season at George Mason with Larranaga, the Patriots reached the Final Four. After two years there, he headed to Virginia Tech.
Awaiting Virginia Tech's formal announcement, Johnson was unavailable Monday. But two weeks ago, in discussing his move to Clemson, he gave me a glimpse of his motivation.
"I want to be a head coach," Johnson said, "and I got into this business because I wanted to impact young people's lives and because I love basketball.
"I was making $7,000 a year (in my first job) at Ferrum College and eating at the cafeteria. I was just doing it to coach ball and be around kids."
Little did either of us realize how quickly that head-coaching goal would be realized.