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May 18, 2012

Changing of the Cassell Guard

By: Jimmy Robertson

James Johnson takes over the reins as the head basketball coach at Tech

When James Johnson graduated from Ferrum in 1993, he began taking steps toward his dream of becoming a head coach at the collegiate level.

He probably never imagined it would be a 19-year process.

But Johnson’s dream finally came to fruition when Tech AD Jim Weaver named the 40-year-old as the head coach of the Virginia Tech men’s basketball team, ending a bizarre eight days for the men’s basketball program.

This odyssey started April 23 when Weaver terminated Seth Greenberg as the coach, citing attrition among the assistants and the lack of a family environment as two main reasons for the decision. Johnson himself left Tech just days prior to the announcement, taking a job as an assistant at Clemson under Brad Brownell.

But that tenure lasted only a week. Weaver met Johnson in Charlotte on April 26, and four days later, decided he wanted Johnson to be the new Hokies head coach. The two came to an agreement on a five-year contract that will pay Johnson $685,000 per year. Also, Weaver got permission from Tech president Dr. Charles Steger to pay the assistant coaches more, so Johnson will have approximately $475,000 at his disposal.

“It really came down to the point that every head coach got a break at some point or another,” Weaver said at a press conference May 1. “I thought, after visiting with James, that he was ready to take over our program, and that’s why he’s sitting here to my right and your left [at the press conference].

“He’s earned his stripes, and it’s time he became a head coach.”

“Throughout this process, as things developed with this situation, I thought about all my years here at Virginia Tech, and I don’t think there’s any better person for the job than myself,” Johnson said. “I know this university, I know these players and I recruited every one of these guys in some perspective. I know the support group, and I look forward to putting this thing in place and moving the program forward.

“We have everything in place to take this program to the next level – a great group of young men that are going to work hard, talented players, and I look forward to working with them.”

Johnson’s familiarity with the Tech program certainly worked in his favor. He had spent the past five seasons as one of Greenberg’s assistants, and a year ago, he received a promotion to the role of associate head coach. He served as the lead recruiter for most of the Hokies’ current roster of players and developed game plans for specific games throughout his tenure.

He inherits an experienced team. Tech returns eight scholarship players, including leading scorer Erick Green and developing big man Cadarian Raines. At the press conference announcing Johnson’s hiring, Green said all eight on the current roster planned on staying at Tech.

Such a roster figures to bring forth expectations, but the Hokies suffered a losing season a year ago, and the program has been to one NCAA Tournament (2007) since 1996 – a span of 16 years – though it has been to the NIT five times in that span.

But Johnson doesn’t shy away from the challenges.

“We’re competing to be the best,” he said. “We’re not trying to be second fiddle to anybody. We’re going to work hard and recruit hard. Our players are going to play hard and practice hard. We’re not going to be second fiddle to anybody. We want to be the best we can be.”

Johnson, a Powhatan, Va., native didn’t dive into a lot of details about his coaching philosophy at the press conference other than to say he plans on implementing X’s and O’s that he’s learned at all his various coaching stops. Those stops included two years with his college coach, Bill Pullen, at Ferrum, two years under former George Mason and current Miami coach Jim Larranaga at George Mason, two years under former Penn State and current Navy coach Ed DeChellis at Penn State and five years under Greenberg. His stints also included brief stops at the College of Charleston, Old Dominion, Longwood and Elon.

One thing is for sure – he will emphasize defense. As a player, he was a three-time defensive player of the year.

“Offensively, we want to put points on the board,” Johnson said. “Defensively, that’s what I hung my hat on as a player and throughout my coaching career. Defense is going to be big for me.

“I’m going to talk to guys I lean on. I’ve coached in some big games and I’ve done some preparation for some big games. I don’t anticipate anything new that someone is 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.”

Johnson’s first priorities include putting together his staff and convincing the Hokies’ two signees to remain with the school. Both Marshall Wood, a 6-foot-8 forward from Rustburg, Va., and Montrezl Harrell, a 6-9 power forward from Tarboro, N.C., by way of Hargrave hinted at exploring other options after Greenberg’s termination. Wood decided to stick with Tech. He averaged 24.1 points and 12.5 rebounds per game for Rustburg this past season. Harrell, who hasn’t made a decision yet, averaged 25.2 points and 13.8 rebounds for Hargrave, which finished the season 39-1.

“There is an urgency for me to get my staff off and running,” Johnson said. “I intend to start on that tomorrow [May 2]. With the new guys coming in [Wood and Harrell], I’m familiar with those guys. That’s something I’ll have to do. I’ll have to sit down with those guys and their families. We think that they are a part of Virginia Tech and a part of our family now, so I think we’ll be all right there.

“We want guys that want to be excited about being at Virginia Tech, just like the guys in the program now. Just like any of the other guys I intend to recruit, I want guys that want to be here. This is a special place, and they need to have special feelings about being here.”

His biggest transition, though, may be in getting the current players on Tech’s roster to view him as the lead authority. Tech’s players often confided in Johnson, and he took a “big brother” role. Now, that role changes.

Ultimately, Johnson’s tenure will be defined by wins and losses. But after 19 years as an assistant, he’s up for the task of bringing the Hokies’ program future success.

“I’ve been coaching basketball and competing at different levels all my life,” he said. “Coaching is what I do, and I’m comfortable when I’m in the gym, and I’m comfortable when I’m in the living room recruiting young men.

“So I’m definitely comfortable coaching in the ACC. When the players are out on the floor, there’s another guy [coach] out there trying to get his players to do what he wants them to do, and I’m going to be trying to get my guys to do what I want them to do. We’ll take it from there.”

Weaver cites lack of continuity and family atmosphere among reasons for dismissing Greenberg

Throughout his career, Virginia Tech AD Jim Weaver hasn’t been afraid to make bold and tough decisions.

Another example of that came on April 23.

Weaver decided to end Seth Greenberg’s tenure as the Virginia Tech men’s basketball coach, terminating Greenberg after deciding that the program needed to go in a different direction. Greenberg had four years remaining on his contract, and the Tech athletics department will pay Greenberg $300,000 per year for those four years, as the contract stipulates.

Weaver cited several reasons for making the move. He said he and Tom Gabbard, Tech’s associate AD for internal affairs and also the men’s basketball administrator, came to the conclusion that they weren’t going to extend Greenberg’s contract after next season. Attrition among Greenberg’s assistants – two full-time and the director of operations left following the season – and the lack of a family environment also factored into Weaver’s decision.

“I did not like, quite honestly, coaches leaving an ACC program that had the promise on the court that this program has for next year,” Weaver said. “I can understand some coaches leaving, but to have as many coaches leave as we had sat the wrong way with me.

“It [the decision] had nothing to do with losing and nothing to do with NCAA appearances. It had something to do with people leaving, and it had something to do with me wanting to change the direction and leadership of the program.

“I want to change the leadership such that the person at the top of that program has the same type of family environment that the other part of our department had. It became crystal clear to me when I closed our departmental workshop [an annual workshop for athletics department employees each April] that we didn’t have that in the men’s basketball program, especially with people leaving.”

Greenberg, hired in 2003 to replace Ricky Stokes, went 170-123 in nine seasons as the Hokies’ head coach, including a 59-62 mark in ACC play. His teams made postseason play on six occasions, including an NCAA Tournament bid in 2007. He was named the ACC coach of the year following the 2004-05 and 2007-08 seasons.