Voice of the Fan: The Decision on James Johnson

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Occasionally, we here at TSL will run an article submitted by our readership as a “Voice of the Fan” piece, or will promote a post from the message board to VOF status. Opinions expressed in VOF articles do not necessarily represent the editorial viewpoint of TechSideline.com or TSL staff.

In this case, this article was posted on the message board by poster “Tailgate Guru” and is reprinted here with his permission.

James Johnson and his assistants watch the action during Virginia Tech's 60-56 home loss to UNC on March 1st, 2014.
James Johnson and his assistants watch the action during Virginia Tech’s 60-56 home loss to UNC on March 1st, 2014.

The decision on James Johnson
by Tailgate Guru

Much has been said and written about the pending decision on James Johnson’s future as head basketball coach at Virginia Tech. There is little debate on some points, and I suspect the debate on other points is not well-informed. I possess no inside information regarding Coach Johnson or on Whit Babcock’s analysis. But it seems to me that, regrettably, the decision to retain or terminate Coach Johnson has very little to do with whether Coach Johnson is or someday will be a good high major head basketball coach.

Some points seem clear. By all accounts, Coach Johnson presents himself to be a good fellow with a sincere desire to succeed. It appears as though his 2013-14 team chose not to quit on him or each other, which would be easy to do in such a miserable season. That the Hokies are annually victimized by debilitating injuries has become the stuff of legend. And there is no doubt that, largely because of the circumstances of Seth Greenberg’s termination and his own hiring, Coach Johnson was placed in an difficult position from his first day on the job.

I won’t comment on Coach Johnson’s Xs and Os, whether he has built or damaged relationships that might aid Virginia Tech’s recruiting in and about the Commonwealth, or manner by which the decision on Coach Johnson’s future will impact the current roster or incoming and potential recruits. Others have done so, some with more credibility than others; all with unknown (to me) agendas (or lack thereof).

In my view, none of these things matter. What matters is that Virginia Tech desperately needs to change the conversation about Hokie basketball, and like it or not, Coach Johnson is part of the current, negative conversation. In my view, Coach Johnson deserves our respect and thanks, but he should retain his job if and only if Whit Babcock is unable to hire a very well-qualified replacement with head coaching experience who, through a dynamic personality or unconventional style, seems calculated to change the future course of Hokie basketball for the better. And if such a coach cannot be hired, then perhaps we have hired the wrong man to serve as our athletic director, which would be a topic all its own.

Coach Johnson’s hiring drew an immediate, negative reaction among many Virginia Tech’s fans from day one. Little or nothing has occurred to improve the confidence of most fans, whose feelings are perhaps best demonstrated in the many empty seats in Cassell Coliseum. Coach Johnson’s future has been a constant topic in the regular media and on message board sites like TSL since December 2013, if not earlier. If Coach Johnson is retained, there is no reason to believe that the topic of conversation will change anytime soon. Indeed, there has been no reason to believe that the conversation would change since the first of this year. Virginia Tech knew or should have known this when it interviewed candidates for the athletic director’s seat now occupied by Whit Babcock.

It seems reasonable to believe that the Hokies will improve next year, if only because it is difficult for the Hokies to do worse. It is not unreasonable to suspect that Coach Johnson could lead next year’s team to a season that would flirt with and perhaps surpass the .500 mark overall, and perhaps win six or seven ACC games. But the notion of 18, 19 or 20 wins, the prospect of a nice run in the 2015 ACC tournament or a berth in the NIT or NCAA tournament seems like more than any reasonable person’s hopes.

And if that is true, there is no reason to believe that the negative conversation about Virginia Tech basketball that exists today will not continue from now until the 2014-15 season concludes, if Coach Johnson is retained. Ticket sales will not improve. Talk of improved performance will inevitably include and conclude with “but . . . .” Boosters with a skeptical attitude about the university’s commitment to Hokie basketball are not going to become any more optimistic.

Some have said that, perhaps, Whit Babcock may need another year to put a plan in place that would make the Virginia Tech men’s basketball job more attractive to potential candidates. Nonsense. If Babcock did not bring the core constituents of such a plan to Blacksburg last month, Tech hired the wrong man. Whit Babcock just left Cincinnati, which has been a very successful, basketball-first school for 20 years or more. Before that, he worked at Missouri and West Virginia, which have had very respectable basketball programs for many years. Tech’s program has different challenges than Cincy, Mizzou and even WVU, but it should not be hard to compare what those (and other) programs have that Tech lacks and to identify some key areas for improvement. I’m no expert, but I’m guessing the short list includes better money for coaching salaries, a larger recruiting budget, better access to the use of charter aircraft, and a commitment to develop a concrete plan for replacing Cassell Coliseum in ten years or less. And perhaps a careful examination of the program’s strength and conditioning regimen. Whit Babcock’s job is to be a salesman with a vision. He doesn’t need to have all the ducks in a row on March 13, 2014.

A coaching change will likely not result in immediate results on the floor. Things may get worse before they get better, no matter who the next coach is. Neither Phil Jackson nor Brad Stevens nor Shaka Smart could win 20 games with the Hokies next year, even if we could hire them. But a coaching change will change the topic of conversation. It will go a long way towards cutting off the negativity surrounding the Greenberg termination and Johnson hiring. It will give Tech fans hope that Hokie basketball has a future.

Virginia Tech does not have an 80,000 seat football stadium. It needs to generate revenue from its men’s basketball program, and soon. It will do that with improved attendance and a new facility that is better calculated to generate revenue than the current venue will all know and love. To do nothing as it relates to Coach Johnson will be a step back, or a step deeper into disenchantment.

So, in my view, Coach Johnson must be replaced, unless Whit Babcock has done a surpassingly weak job of preparing for this decision since the day he first applied for his new job. If Babcock is as good as we think and hope, he began thinking about potential candidates the day he applied to be Tech’s next AD and began doing back channel investigations no later than the time when he first perceived he was a finalist for his new job.

Virginia Tech may not be the best job in college basketball, but it has a lot to offer. It is a great school in good financial shape in the most storied basketball conference in the land. Tech needs to find a young guy who can inspire and recruit like Jim Valvano (albeit within the applicable rules), and/or who can coach with the uniqueness and intricacy of a John Beilein. Sure, those guys are few and far between. But a really good coach who is a really good fit for Virginia Tech is out there. Whit Babcock should find him (if he hasn’t already) and pay the man.

In conclusion, I feel for Coach Johnson. I hope he maintains his positive attitude and hope he finds success in his future coaching career. This experience may not have been a pleasant one, but it may make him a better man and a better coach down the road. But for Tech, it is time for a new conversation about Hokie basketball. If Tech has done its homework, there can be no other decision.

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