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May 18, 2012

Johnson gets his chance to be a head coach at a place he loves

By: Bill Roth

The plane, other than the roar of the engines, was completely silent.

Virginia Tech’s basketball team had just suffered one of the most excruciating losses in recent years. Tech led Florida State by nine points with only 1:29 remaining in the game, but the Seminoles rallied and won on Michael Snaer’s buzzer-beating 3-point shot. At one end, the euphoric Seminoles stormed the court. At the other, the Hokies dropped to their knees in shock.

An hour later, on the team plane heading home, Tech’s players sat in their seats, glazed, blood-shot eyes staring forward and looking at … well … nothing in particular. Blank stares. Hurt. Bewilderment. Totally silent.

As normal, Tech’s coaching staff sat toward the front of the plane, and on this particular evening, I took the seat next to then-assistant coach James Johnson.

“We should’ve had that one,” Johnson said as the jet climbed into the nighttime sky over the Florida panhandle. “But we’ll be all right. We’re gonna be all right.”

For the next two hours, I had the chance to talk – although on this night, it was mostly listen – to Johnson. Hear his thoughts, his philosophies, and his outlook on this team and a Tech program he had grown to love. Really love.

Some background: Johnson’s first day on the job as an assistant coach at Virginia Tech was April 16, 2007. He arrived at his new office and began doing what all of us do on a first day at a new job – unpacking, setting up voice mail, getting things organized – when the shootings occurred on the Tech campus. It was a horrific day for Hokies everywhere.

But what Johnson saw that day, and in the weeks and months that followed, made an impact. He learned what a special place Tech is by the reaction of Tech students and alums following the shootings. He saw and felt the spirit of the Hokie Nation. In short, he fell in love with the place.

As we’ve all seen since that day he started at Tech in ‘07, Johnson exudes a quiet confidence in the way he carries himself and remains remarkably poised under pressure. Maybe it’s the way he was raised. Maybe it’s the three years he spent as a platoon leader in the National Guard. Perhaps it’s his academic training in psychology.

Regardless, when a devastating loss like that one in Tallahassee rips the heart out of his team, he’s able to survey the emotional damage, console the guys on the team and keep things in perspective.

“We’re not that far away,” Johnson said that night. “That was the 20th-ranked team in the nation. They just won at Duke. They beat North Carolina by 30. And we had ‘em beat.”

Johnson has a knack, a gift really, of reading personalities and relating to people. That’s why he’s been such a dynamic, well regarded, and in-demand recruiter over the years. He recruited guys like Erick Green, C.J. Barksdale, Cadarian Raines and Robert Brown to Tech, and superstar Geary Claxton to Penn State when Johnson was an assistant there.

That night on the plane, Johnson described recruiting as his passion, how he loved to work at it. Find kids, recruit kids, and develop kids. How it’s a year-round, non-stop, 365-days-per-year process for him. That’s what it took to get players at Penn State, he said. It’s that way at Virginia Tech. It’s that way at Florida State.

I told him, “You sound like Leonard Hamilton.”

Hamilton, of course, is the no-nonsense, single-purposed, non-stop recruiting head coach at Florida State. He won in the Big East at Miami when he took the ‘Canes to the Sweet 16 back in 2000, and he’s winning again at FSU, where he coached the Seminoles to the Sweet 16 in 2011 and the ACC championship this past year.

J.J. smiled at the comparison, and our conversation turned to recruiting, specifically how to build an ACC championship-caliber team outside of Chapel Hill or Durham. Hours earlier, I had visited with FSU associate head coach Stan Jones, who has spent the past decade with the ‘Noles working under Hamilton.

“We can win the ACC this year and that’s really remarkable to do here at Florida State,” Jones had told me two hours before the Tech-FSU tipoff. “We take kids from winning programs. We get kids with great length and athleticism who are tough. And when it comes to recruiting you gotta dig under rocks. That’s what we do. That’s what Leonard does. He digs.”

That’s what Hamilton must do because – no offense to the players and coaches in the Leon County Public School system – there aren’t many ACC-caliber high school basketball players in the greater Tallahassee area. In fact, if you look at the ‘Noles roster, you won’t see any locals. The closest Florida kids are from Clearwater, which is 300 miles away.

“We don’t have a true recruiting base in that traditional way,” Jones told me when I called him this past week to discuss this story and to recount our original conversation from February. “Listen, Luke [Loucks] and Okaro [White] are from Clearwater. That’s five hours away. [Jon] Kreft is from South Florida, and that’s seven hours away.

“If you look at our team, you’ll see that Deividas Dulkys is from Lithuania, and [Michael] Snaer is from California. We found out about Bernard [James] at a military tournament. He was an Air Force guy playing in a tournament on a base. Chris Singleton was from Atlanta. Al Thornton was from Perry, Ga., which is about three hours away, and nobody recruited him. Al wasn’t on anyone’s top-400 list coming out of high school, and he went high in the NBA Draft. [Solomon] Alabi was from Nigeria.”

Florida State is rarely, if ever, going to out-recruit North Carolina or Duke in men’s basketball. But it can still build an ACC championship team and be a consistent NCAA Tournament participant.

During this plane ride home, that model became the real focus of our conversation.

If FSU can do it, why not Tech?

Florida State has gone to four straight NCAA Tournaments and will hang an ACC championship banner in its building this November. Yet, if you were to draw a circle within a four-hour drive of Tallahassee, you wouldn’t find many ACC-caliber prospects.


“Within four hours of our campus, we’ve got the entire state of Virginia,” Johnson said. “We’ve got Charlotte. We’ve got DC. We’ve got Greensboro and Winston-Salem. We’ve got the heart of the ACC right here, and we’re in the middle of it.”

That’s why Johnson discounts those who suggest that recruiting to Tech is overly daunting because of its rural setting or its location. Yeah, it’s hard, and you’ve got to work at it, but that’s true everywhere.

“We’re going to recruit our geographic footprint, and the ACC region,” he said.

“They’re in a good spot,” Jones said. “They’ve got the I-95 corridor from Baltimore down to Washington. That’s where they got [Jeff] Allen and [Malcolm] Delaney. They’re in North Carolina with their players now.

“Recruiting isn’t as much about where you are, but how hard you work at it. When Leonard was at Kentucky working for Joe B. Hall, he found Kenny Walker in a tiny town in Georgia when nobody knew of him. Same with [Al] Thornton here. You can get it done, but it’s a lot of hard, hard work.”

As our team plane continued on its way home, and some of the players dozed off, Johnson nodded in agreement with Jones’ assessment of recruiting and the effort it takes to build – and more importantly, to maintain – success. Johnson ran through the positives of Tech’s program (the ACC, the new practice facility, the national TV exposure, the private charter jets and the talent-rich region that Tech calls home).

“Every school has its plusses and every school has its challenges,” Johnson said. “Virginia Tech is a great school. Not just a good school, a great school. We can do this here because of our incredible campus and our league and the resources we have, and because of the people on this plane – the guys in the back of this plane.”

Little did he know that three months later, he’d be the head coach at Virginia Tech.

The James Johnson story is about a kid who grew up in Powhatan, went to college at Ferrum, coached there, and then at Hargrave, Longwood, Old Dominion, College of Charleston, Penn State, George Mason and Virginia Tech as an assistant before finally getting his chance.

“A dream come true,” Johnson said that day he was named Tech’s head coach. “To have an opportunity to guide an ACC program in a state I grew up in is an unbelievable feeling.”

What kind of head coach should fans expect?

“Energetic, very passionate and competitive,” he said. And “very caring for his players.”

He’s never been a head coach before, but neither was Hamilton, who was a 38-year-old career assistant when he got his first head job at Oklahoma State. Jamie Dixon was a 37-year-old career assistant when he was hired as head coach at Pittsburgh. Tom Izzo was 40 when he got his first coaching gig at Michigan State.

Johnson, 40, will bring a unique skill set to the head coach’s office in Blacksburg. His military training and experiences have given him unique serenity-under-stress leadership skills. He was picked as a three-time platoon leader because people follow him and trust him. He’s led soldiers and has gone through military leadership classes. He knows that variables like time management, discipline and respect, so important in the military arena, will translate to basketball arenas – and to his new orange and maroon platoon.

But don’t picture a drill sergeant here. In fact, it’s his engaging personality that wins over his fellow coaches, his players and recruits – not just at Tech, but also everywhere he’s been. He’s worked in the Big Ten and the ACC, and he’s coached in the Final Four. He knows the Tech culture, the academics and the ins-and-outs of the campus.

“I want to move this program forward,” Johnson said. “We have a great group of young men here. Better people than players, actually. They’re a great group of guys.”

But they’re pretty good players, too, and that’s why there are such high hopes for Johnson’s first Tech team this upcoming season. This isn’t a rebuilding job. He’s inheriting a pretty talented team.

“Virginia Tech is a very special place,” Johnson said last week after a few days in his new position. “It’s a special place because of the people here and their support.”

And now the kid from Powhatan, who cut his teeth working at schools throughout the commonwealth of Virginia as an assistant, will finally get his chance, coaching at a school he loves – and for a program he believes can be a consistent winner in the ACC.