When he left Virginia Tech three weeks ago to take an assistant coaching job at Clemson, James Johnson said his goal was to turn that into a head coaching job.
He had no idea he would get that opportunity so fast.
Johnson was introduced Tuesday as Virginia Tech’s men’s basketball coach. He replaces Seth Greenberg, the man he worked for as an assistant the past five seasons.
“I don’t think there was any better person for the job than myself,” Johnson said. “I know this university, I know these players. I’ve recruited every one of these guys in some respective and we have everything in place to take this program to the next level.”
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The biggest difference, he said, will be his role in the process.
“I go from now being a suggestion-maker to being a decision-maker,” he said.
For athletics director Jim Weaver, who said in dismissing Greenberg on April 23 that the decision wasn’t based on wins and losses, the choice of the 40-year-old Johnson made sense on several levels, including the opportunity to maintain some continuity in the program.
“I believe that you hire the right person at the moment in time,” Weaver said.
Several players talked of possibly transferring after Greenberg was ousted, and they also recommended in a meeting with Weaver that the school give Johnson a chance.
“We considered very strongly their opinions,” Weaver said of the meeting last Monday, which came just after Greenberg was fired. “In order to play, you need players.”
And the players already in the fold really like their new coach.
“We just have a lot of faith in him. He’s coached a couple of times in practice and we really liked what he did, the methods he did, some of the styles he did,” said Erick Green, the top returning scorer, who was waiting to see who was hired before deciding to return.
“We haven’t been this excited in a long time,” Green said.
Forward Jarell Eddie attended the press conference with Green.
“Being able to bring someone in that everyone’s comfortable with, as well as keep everyone here ... it makes the transition smoother,” the rising junior said.
“We want to play for coach Johnson.”
Johnson, an assistant for 19 years, is a native of Powhatan in suburban Richmond who played in college at Ferrum, where he joked got his only head coaching experience.
In a game at Maryville, he said, then-head coach Bill Pullen was kicked out of the game early in the second half with his team down by 20 points. Johnson, an assistant, took over and Ferrum came all the way back to force overtime, but then lost in the extra period.
“So I do have some head coaching experience,” Johnson said, laughing.
Weaver said he consulted with several friends in the coaching business, and they all told him to go with his gut. He said he had no concerns about giving Johnson his first opportunity in the Atlantic Coast Conference, one of the top leagues in the country.
“He’s earned his stripes and it’s time that he became a head coach,” Weaver said, adding later that “every head coach got a break at some point or another.”
Johnson also has coached at Longwood, Old Dominion, Elon, College of Charleston and Penn State, and was at George Mason when the Patriots went to the 2006 Final Four.
Johnson, whose departure for Clemson was part of an exodus that had seen six assistants leave in four years, will be paid $680,000, and will benefit from a policy Weaver got approved when the Hokies were trying to keep him. Virginia Tech will pay its assistants the same money that Clemson pays its assistants, a total of approximately $475,000.
Johnson said he plans to get to work building a staff on Wednesday.