Hokies' hire makes short-term sense
The hiring of James Johnson as the new basketball coach at Virginia Tech may be as much about the 2012-13 season as any down the road.
The Hokies were close to essentially having no team before various newspapers in Virginia reported the news Monday. Hiring Johnson means the program has some footing and that the players threatening to leave will matriculate in Blacksburg for next season.
Seth Greenberg was fired a week ago after two assistants and a basketball operations staffer left for other jobs. Johnson, who began working for Greenberg in 2007, was one of those assistants. He left two weeks ago for a job at Clemson, turning down Tech's offer at matching his new salary of $190,000. Johnson told athletic director Jim Weaver it wasn't about money.
As we learned last week, exit comments from the coaches didn't shine a positive light on Greenberg, and Weaver decided a head coach with no assistants — a third assistant took a job at Old Dominion the day Greenberg was fired — needed to go.
Players, including star guard Erick Green, suggested they might leave the program, and the top two recruits reportedly requested that the school release them from their letters of intent. The bottom was about to cave in, so the job looked less enticing to prospective coaches, though it's uncertain how many coaches interviewed for the job.
N.C. State assistant Bobby Lutz met with Tech officials in Greensboro last Friday, but he wouldn't have been much of an upgrade from Greenberg from a basketball perspective. But many of the names rumored as candidates were never contacted. Maybe Weaver wanted Johnson all along.
He's quite different from Greenberg. At 40, Johnson has a youthful approach to dealing with players. Many went to Virginia Tech because of him. He will employ a different brand of basketball than Greenberg, in which the emphasis on pushing more will be evident the first time anyone watches the Hokies next season.
And hiring Johnson means next season is essentially saved. It's hard to tell whether bringing in another coach, even an established one, would have installed harmony in the program as quickly as Johnson will. Because of that, this is a sensible hire.
That's where it ends.
The ACC is hardly a training ground for those with no head-coaching experience. Most assistants who have taken over ACC programs have done so from within, like Johnson basically is. But those have usually been successful situations, such as Bill Guthridge replacing Dean Smith at North Carolina in 1997, or Jeff Jones replacing Terry Holland at Virginia in 1990.
More puzzling is that Johnson has little experience in a power conference. He played at Ferrum College, a Division III program in Virginia. He has also coached at Elon, Old Dominion, College of Charleston, Longwood, George Mason and had a stint at Penn State. His only ACC experience in any capacity is working for Greenberg.
Coaching in the ACC is difficult enough. Many promising coaches have gone into the league after establishing themselves as hot commodities, only to leave on an athletic director's term, not their own. The conference is that unforgiving.
The Hokies' program now must navigate through the ACC with a head coach who left them two weeks ago and two years ago was passed over by Gardner-Webb.
Perhaps if Weaver had pulled the trigger on Greenberg a month ago, the result would have been a successful national search and hire. Maybe Johnson was his guy all along; nobody will really know.
But it's Johnson's job now. Only time will tell whether this hire was the right move.