James Johnson’s Dismissal Highlights the Other Unpleasant Side of MarchPosted by Lathan Wells on March 17th, 2014
The month of March is one that brings joy to many college basketball programs across the country, as they now have the chance to chase a national championship via the NCAA Tournament (or to a lesser extent, an NIT title that at least yields a banner). But as many know, March is often a time of despondency across the college basketball landscape. It starts with the teams that had their hopes dashed on Selection Sunday when their names weren’t called, but it also extends to the programs whose seasons are completely over. That’s where the dark days in March occur, and Virginia Tech’s James Johnson experienced such a day today as he was relieved of his duties as head coach of the Hokies after a mere two seasons on the bench.
Johnson was considered something of a surprise hire when he replaced the ousted Seth Greenberg two years ago. In fact, he had never been a head coach at all, having recently left Blacksburg to take on a similar assistant coaching role at Clemson. Instead, Greenberg’s messy exit coupled with resounding support from the holdover players convinced the administration to hire Johnson to take over the program, citing in particular his recruiting ability for some of the better teams of the Greenberg era. He inherited a bad team in his first season that only produced 13 wins, even with ACC Player of the Year and eventual pro Erick Green on the roster. His follow-up nine-win campaign, which resulted in a dead-last performance in a 15-team ACC, was due to an extremely underwhelming roster. In the preseason, Johnson made the bizarre decision to name an incoming freshman team captain despite the presence of seniors Jarell Eddie and Cadarian Raines returning. And it wasn’t a superstar talent like Jabari Parker who was named the leader, either; it was two- or three-star guard Ben Emelogu. Emelogu had a decent start to his first college campaign, but he was far from a star.
Furthermore, Johnson’s incoming class for next year only included three more three-star recruits, according to Rivals.com. His greatest strength of recruiting was simply not bearing fruit. Couple that with the players who left after Greenberg was dismissed — in particular, Dorian Finney-Smith (transfer) to Florida, and Montrezl Harrell (decommitted) to Louisville — and Johnson’s inability to keep players in the program only compounded his inability to bring in fresh, new talented faces. It didn’t help that intrastate rival Virginia won the ACC regular season going away, and earned a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament; or that upstart VCU is a much bigger household name in the hoops world than Virginia Tech.
The other thing working against Johnson was that the athletic director who hired him, Jim Weaver, departed in January and was replaced by Whit Babcock. New athletic directors are rarely beholden to underperforming coaches they didn’t initially hire, so Babcock probably took a look at Johnson’s tenure and the prospect of another rebuilding year as too much to take. In a conference that just added Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and will bring in the defending national champion, Louisville, next year, patience with a coaching staff is in short supply in the ACC. Whether Johnson deserved a third year after only coaching his own recruits once is certainly arguable, but the fact that his team was not moving in the right direction in his second term is not.
Where will the Hokies go from here? They’ll likely look for an outside candidate, as the Johnson in-house assistant experiment didn’t go very well. They will, however, have the early benefit of being a football-first school with a basketball fan base that holds very little expectations for its team beyond competitiveness. While the next coach may be afforded some time to bring in his players and implement his system, Johnson’s small two-year tenure at the helm may also worry any interested candidates. It’s difficult to recruit players to Blacksburg despite the allure of competing with some of the best teams in the nation in the ACC. Whit Babcock, and the Hokies’ basketball fans, had better hope finding a coach enticed by rebuilding a conference bottom-dweller is not.