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May 18, 2012

Tech's basketball players excited after Weaver tabs Johnson new men's head coach

By: Jimmy Robertson

Less than 24 hours after Tech AD Jim Weaver dismissed Seth Greenberg as the men’s basketball coach in a rather surprising move, Erick Green walked into the office of Tom Gabbard, the associate AD for internal affairs and the men’s basketball administrator.

Green, the leader of the team, politely told Gabbard that he and Weaver didn’t need to go on some expansive and exhaustive search to find a new head coach. There was a guy just a few feet down the hall in the beautiful Hahn Hurst basketball practice facility who happened to be a good coach and who also could create the family environment so treasured at Tech.

“He talks to my mom [Tamara Green] all the time,” Green said. “And if my mom is a fan of you, that’s a good thing.”

Partly because of his familiarity with the program, including his close relationship with the players, and partly because Weaver felt he deserved an opportunity, James Johnson was named the new Hokies’ head coach. He took over on May 1, less than two weeks after ending a five-year stint in Blacksburg as an assistant to take an assistant’s job at Clemson.

This certainly makes for a great story. For starters, Johnson became just the fifth African-American head coach in Tech’s history (Ricky Stokes and Frankie Allen in men’s basketball, Sam Okpodu in women’s soccer, and Ted Manley in men’s swimming) and the first since Stokes piloted the program from 1999-2003. It also speaks to perseverance and hard work, as Johnson has spent the past 19 years toiling as an assistant at some rather remote basketball outposts – places like Ferrum, Longwood, Elon, Penn State and others. He usually did so for little pay. At Ferrum, he made $7,000 and ate his meals in the school’s cafeteria.

“I never thought it [being a head coach] wasn’t going to happen,” Johnson said. “I went about my business of being an assistant coach, and I wanted to be the best assistant coach I could be at that particular time. I was never working to get my next job. When the opportunity came up, I thought this was definitely a good situation, and Mr. Weaver talked to me and believed in me, and here I am right now.”

Johnson has obtained his ultimate goal, and now, to stay in his position, he needs for the current players to buy into his system and his way of doing things. He needs for them listen to what he teaches, and then together, they need to win games. Bottom line.

Therein lies the most important part of this transition for Johnson and the players. Tech’s players viewed Johnson as a big brother of sorts when he served as an assistant coach for Greenberg, someone whom they could go to and just hang out with and share a laugh or joke. They also felt comfortable sharing any of life’s problems.

Johnson hopes that continues, obviously. But certainly, the situation is different now. He needs to be firm with the players when they need it, and more importantly, the players need to be receptive to that, given Johnson’s role. They need to show him the respect that a head coach warrants.

“It’ll be expected,” Tech forward Jarell Eddie said when asked what he’ll do the first time Johnson gets on him for a mistake. “You’re playing college basketball, and the coach is going to want to get everything out of you. It’ll be a little bit different because it’s not going to be Coach Greenberg screaming at you. But it’s something that you expect.

“He will be the tough guy, but that’s something you expect. He’s going to expect more out of you, and when he’s not getting it, he will have to be that authoritative figure. But that’s fine. We expect Coach Johnson to give us that criticism when we need it.”

It’ll be interesting to see how Johnson meshes his coaching style with the players and seeing the differences between he and Greenberg. Johnson said he wants to get up and down the floor more, and he’ll also place a premium on defense.

For the short term, his hiring makes sense in that it keeps the current program intact. The long term is the question, as it is with any coaching change.

Tech’s standout player, though, is the biggest believer.

“I wish you guys [media members] were around him as much as we’re around him,” Green said. “He’s just a great guy. He knows what he’s talking about. He knows basketball.

“Sure, he hasn’t coached in the ACC yet, but I really believe that he’s the right guy for the job.”