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October 17, 2012

Johnson excited about first season in charge of Tech basketball program

By: Jimmy Robertson

New Tech men’s basketball coach James Johnson makes sure he wins the opening tip on every day. He gets up at dark, gets to work before dawn leaks over the eastern horizon, and like the great defensive player he was at Ferrum back in the day, he refuses to let a minute get past him.

He wants his team to prepare with that same dogged determination, so on Sept. 15, when the NCAA allowed basketball programs to start practicing as a team for two hours a week, he scheduled his team’s practice at 6 a.m. He did so not because of class schedules or study hall. On the contrary, it was simply time to go to work.

“It’s something I wanted to do,” Johnson said. “I wanted to set a tone and set an attitude.”

Johnson began putting a stamp – his stamp – on the Tech program when he took over as the Hokies’ head man last April following Jim Weaver’s firing of Seth Greenberg. It marked his first head coaching job after a longtime career as an assistant, including a five-year stint under Greenberg in Blacksburg.

Johnson set his roster after meeting individually with the players. He hired a staff, a group with a nice blend of experience and youth. He recruited – every single day. He befriended people in the athletics department, and he courted proper university officials. He leaned heavily on those whom he trusted, those who would put the interests of the program first.

According to insiders in the Tech athletics department, to those in the college basketball business, to casual fans, Johnson has handled the transition well up to this point, with only days left before basketball season begins in earnest [mid-October].

“It’s been pretty smooth,” Johnson said of his transition. “The players have been pretty good, and everyone around campus has been great to work with. Sharon [Spradlin, the administrative assistant to men’s basketball], who’s been around and knows a lot, has been a great help, and everyone over in the administrative offices has been a great help. The players have been buying into what we’re trying to do. So, overall, it’s been real smooth.”

Jeff Jones knows exactly how Johnson feels these days. The former UVa point guard, now the head coach at American University, found himself in the same boat more than 20 years ago. He got his first head coaching job at an ACC school – his alma mater – after then head coach Terry Holland retired in 1990.

Johnson talked with Jones not long after being named Tech’s head coach, and Jones’ message was simple – trust yourself to make the right decisions.

“He’s going to get a whole lot of opinions, people telling him ‘you have to do this’ or ‘you have to do that,’” Jones said. “It doesn’t hurt to listen. But whatever decision he makes, he needs to feel good about it. Trust your instincts. He’s worked hard to get ready for this opportunity, and he needs to make sure he’s comfortable with what he’s doing.

“There are a lot of ways and approaches to be successful in college basketball these days. The coaches who have confidence in what they’re doing and can communicate and sell their beliefs to the players, those are the ones who are the most successful. So trust yourself and be confident in what you’re doing.”

Johnson also reached out to others in the profession. He talked to Missouri head coach Frank Haith, another man who spent years as an assistant before getting his first head coaching job at an ACC school (the University of Miami in 2004). Also, Johnson talked to one of his former bosses, Jim Larranaga, who took over for Haith at Miami. Johnson worked on Larranaga’s staff at George Mason and considers Larranaga a mentor of sorts as well as a good friend.

They, too, delivered helpful advice.

“They’re just telling me that I can’t do everything in one day,” Johnson said. “They’ve told me to take my time, work hard and enjoy it. I also call and ask about certain situations and how to handle those situations. For the most part, they’ve been telling me to take care of the guys in the program now and recruit, but you can’t do everything in one day.”

Johnson wants to play fast on offense and extend his defense, but doesn’t have the depth to do it this season. He needs to get his players in place first.

He’ll work hard and enjoy putting this program together – his way. He expects his players to do the same.

The season is about to tip off, and these are exciting times. No one is more excited than Tech’s new head coach.