Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: With Johnson, Virginia Tech gets some bang for its buck

I give the James Johnson hire a seven.

On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being "extremely enthused" and one being "they could have found a better guy trolling the bread aisle at Food Lion," a seven is really good, considering the circumstances at Virginia Tech.

A seven also is a shock. I already had the "one" label peeled and ready to apply.

I was positive Jim Weaver was going to hire a retread on the cheap, the fan base would let out a collective groan and the most prized freshman class in more than a decade would split up and exit Blacksburg. They'd take rising senior Erick Green along with them, and a basketball program that Seth Greenberg had spent nine years guiding to respectability would be in ruins.

Didn't happen. At least outside of some groaning, which was going to occur regardless of who walked through those doors at the price Tech's willing to pay. Shaka Smart wasn't coming here, folks. Pretty much any successful head coach with a lot of options wasn't coming here. Why leave a good situation to enter this climate?

Given all that a mess he helped create Weaver went with former Greenberg assistant James Johnson. And while it's impossible to predict how he will fare in his first opportunity as a head coach, the overriding theme here is this: Weaver could have done a lot worse with his choice.

Is it awkward, luring Johnson back from Clemson after canning the man's former boss? Oh, you bet. But we're used to awkward around here. The important thing was for the Hokies to get a good basketball man, one who had a chance to retain the current players. In Johnson, they did.

Johnson's lack of head coaching experience makes him an outlier in the ACC. But he's more than paid his dues during a two-decade climb from his playing days at Ferrum College, with stops at Longwood, Hargrave Military Academy, Old Dominion, Elon, College of Charleston, Penn State, George Mason and Blacksburg.

He's only 40 years old and a decorated recruiter. He gleaned some Xs and Os experience from Jim Larranaga while helping George Mason reach the Final Four. He knows how to get players and, in the case of this opportunity, keep them.

Many in the national media will mock this hire. It started the moment the news broke Monday.

People will dismiss Johnson, but they should be careful about that.

Johnson's a grinder. Always has been. He came to college as a 6-foot-2 guard, but when no perimeter slots were available, he moved to forward and held his own banging against 6-7 big men.

"He was always a student of the game back then," former Ferrum teammate Everett Foxx told me in 2006. "When it came to executing a play, James was always in the right place at the right time. His timing was impeccable."

The timing of all this is atrocious, as we know. That's Weaver's fault, not Johnson's.

Weaver's uncertain future no doubt played a role in this. Even if Weaver's health allows him to continue as AD until his planned retirement at the end of 2015, he is leaving. Any candidates knew they'd have a new boss at some point soon.

Whoever that new boss is can begin evaluating Johnson's leadership ability now. That's another positive of this; assuming Tech's nucleus of players remains, we won't need the customary two- or three-year waiting period for Johnson to recruit "his" guys before we can appraise the results.

The players already in the program are ones Johnson helped select and entice. How he manages them? Well, that's what we're about to find out.

But for now, the hire's a seven. Tech can only hope it blossoms into a 10.

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