Friday, October 12, 2012

New Virginia Tech coach's leadership emerged early in career

James Johnson was rarely in the spotlight, but he never failed to impress the people around him.

First-year Virginia Tech head basketball coach James Johnson is getting ready for the coming season. Virginia Tech begins practice today.

Photos by Matt Gentry | The Roanoke Times

First-year Virginia Tech head basketball coach James Johnson is getting ready for the coming season. Virginia Tech begins practice today.

Virginia Tech head basketball coach James Johnson (left) and assistant coach Ramon Williams discuss recruiting issues as the team prepares to start its season.

Virginia Tech head basketball coach James Johnson (left) and assistant coach Ramon Williams discuss recruiting issues as the team prepares to start its season.

James Johnson works Thursday in his office in the basketball practice facility. His colleagues say they have been impressed by his work ethic.

James Johnson works Thursday in his office in the basketball practice facility. His colleagues say they have been impressed by his work ethic.

Virginia Tech Hokies basketball

Berman Courtside

Meet James Johnson

Virginia Tech men’s basketball coach

  • Age: 41
  • High School: Powhatan
  • College: Ferrum (1989-93); helped team make 1992 NCAA Division III tournament; member of Ferrum hall of fame.
  • Assistant coaching jobs: Ferrum (1993-95), Longwood (1995-96), Hargrave Military Academy (1996-97), Old Dominion (1997-2000), Elon (2000-02), College of Charleston (2002-03), Penn State (2003-05), George Mason (2005-07), Virginia Tech (2007-12), Clemson (April 2012)

BLACKSBURG — James Johnson entered Ferrum College as a basketball player.

He left as a coach.

Johnson, who was hired last spring as the Virginia Tech men's basketball coach, didn't play basketball in the big-time Atlantic Coast Conference like the Hokies do. He played in the nonscholarship world of NCAA Division III.

While playing for the Panthers, his leadership skills surfaced.

"I was almost a coach out there on the floor," he said.

He graduated from Ferrum in 1993 but did not want to leave basketball behind. He decided to make coaching his profession, and remained at Ferrum for two more years as an assistant.

"The job paid maybe $5,000 a year plus room, and I got the chance to eat in the cafeteria," Johnson said. "It wasn't [for] the money or anything glorious. It was, 'I love ball. I love coaching. I love being around the guys. I love being a role model.'"

Johnson, 41, remains close to former Panthers coach Bill Pullen, who still lives in Ferrum. Johnson hopes he can be the type of head coach his mentor was.

"I want to have that same player-coach relationship with my players," said Johnson, whose Hokies begin preseason practice today. "He was demanding, he was hard, but he wanted us to do the right thing. And we won. Not only did we win, we got our degree.

"He was very influential in me learning on and off the floor about the importance of education, the importance of getting a degree. That's still important to me today with these young men that I'm going to be shaping."

Work ethic

Johnson, who was one of six children, grew up in the Richmond suburb of Powhatan.

"Money was very tight," said his mother, Ruth Johnson Zarif. "We had very little, but there wasn't any complaining. We did a lot of sharing."

Johnson got his work ethic from his parents, who divorced when he was in college. His mother was a nurse at a prison. His father, Johnny Johnson Sr., was part of the housekeeping staff at the University of Richmond's basketball arena, the Robins Center. The elder Johnson helped clean the court, the locker rooms and the offices.

"He took a lot of pride in that," Johnson said of his father. "What was instilled in me at an early age was, 'Whatever you do, be the best at it.'"

Johnson's father always asks him how the floors look at Cassell Coliseum.

Johnson had a number of jobs as a teenager. He worked at a restaurant and at a grocery store. He raked leaves and mowed lawns.

After talking to military recruiters, Johnson joined the Army National Guard after graduating from Powhatan High School so he could help pay for college.

"I'm a competitive person," said Johnson, who served for two years while in college. "They were talking about how tough the basic training and all that stuff was, and I wanted to go through it and see."

'Very intense'

Johnson was a three-year starter at Ferrum, where he played forward and guard. He averaged 5.7 points and 5.9 rebounds as a junior, helping the Panthers win their conference tournament and advance to the 1992 NCAA Division III tournament.

"I got to college and realized we were very talented and we had a lot of scorers," said Johnson, a member of the Ferrum hall of fame. "Somebody had to do the dirty work and play some defense."

"He did what we asked him to do," said Pullen, 59, who was Ferrum's coach from 1985-96. "That's always been his biggest attribute, and I think it's going to be in coaching, too — he knows what 'team' is all about."

Johnson averaged 7.5 points as a senior, when Ferrum won the conference regular-season title.

"He was intense, very intense," said former Ferrum teammate Jerry Scarborough, now a Richmond police officer. "I'm not going to say he hated to lose, but he didn't take it very well when we did. He did whatever we needed or whatever it took to win. If he had to score, he scored. If he had to hunt down their best player, he'd do it. If he had to stick his nose in there for a rebound, he'd do it."

After graduating, Johnson went from playing for Pullen to working for him. He not only helped Pullen coach but also did the team laundry.

Pullen has left coaching and now owns an insurance business. Johnson said he rarely makes a big decision in his life without consulting him.

'Married to the game'

Johnson, who was an assistant for 19 years before becoming a head coach, is single.

"He's basically been married to the game," Pullen said. "He's so dedicated."

After working at Ferrum, Longwood and Hargrave Military Academy, Johnson moved into the NCAA Division I ranks as an assistant at Old Dominion. He moved on to Elon, the College of Charleston and Penn State before joining the staff of Jim Larranaga at George Mason.

Johnson helped George Mason make a surprising run to the Final Four in the 2006 NCAA tournament.

He impressed Larranaga with his teaching skills, his work ethic and his knack for recruiting.

"He's very personable, and the lifeblood of any program is recruiting," said Larranaga, now the coach at Miami. "I've had bachelors before on my staff and invariably they are married to recruiting. They love to get out on the road."

In 2007, then-Hokies coach Seth Greenberg hired Johnson for his staff.

Johnson's first day at work was April 16, 2007. He drove to Ferrum to get a copy of his transcript for the human resources office. He was driving back to Tech when he saw police cars speeding past him.

It was the day of the Virginia Tech shootings.

"The way this university handled that situation — the students, the faculty, the staff, the administration — I knew this was a special place," Johnson said.

Big break

After five seasons on Greenberg's staff, Johnson left Tech in April to become a Clemson assistant.

"I actually went up there and talked to him when he was getting ready to make his decision," Pullen said. "It was a financial thing ... to start with."

Clemson offered Johnson more money than he had been making at Tech. But Johnson said his motivation concerned his career.

Johnson, a finalist for Gardner-Webb's head coaching vacancy in 2010, figured it was time to add a new boss to the list of people who could recommend him for a head coaching job. One of Clemson coach Brad Brownell's assistants had just left to become a head coach, so Johnson saw Clemson as a good steppingstone.

It was a much quicker steppingstone than he imagined.

Two weeks after Johnson left Tech, Greenberg was fired. One week after firing Greenberg, Tech athletic director Jim Weaver gave Johnson his first head coaching job.

"You just get a gut feeling that this person is ready and this person can do it and this person has the work ethic that it will take," Weaver said. "For the last two or three years, I have observed him and felt he would make a very good head coach."

Salem High School graduate Mark Byington, who used to be one of Johnson's fellow College of Charleston assistants, is now one of Johnson's assistant coaches.

"My challenge every day is to try to beat him in the office," Byington said. "There's days I've gotten here about 4:30 a.m. and I think he's probably been here for 30 or 45 minutes already. ... Nobody's outworking him."

Tech is coming off a losing season, and Johnson will have just eight scholarship players at his disposal this season. Expectations are low.

"It'll all work. It's going to take a year or two," Weaver said. "We're going to need a year or two to get recruiting so that we have the full complement of players and make sure that we're headed in the right direction."

There will be plenty of skeptics wondering if Johnson is up to the task of being a head coach.

"I'm not trying to coach to show anybody anything, to show other coaches or the fans anything," Johnson said. "I want to try to coach my team up to the best of my ability so we can play the best basketball we can play, we can be the best youngsters we can be and be the best students."

Weather Journal

News tips, photos and feedback?
Sign up for free daily news by email