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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55 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Still sorting out how I feel about the topic but that was a really good read. thanks for posting it.

  2. JJ has a very solid recruiting class coming in that includes an ESPN Top 100 player. We have two redshirts joining them and hopefully healthy players Smith, Barksdale and Emelogu also returning. I favor the option to retain JJ but with some serious changes. We announce a 1 year extension on his contract but quietly negotiate the buyout down to a more manageable number. That’s doable as teh alternative is JJ gets fired. So we don’t kill his recruiting ability but we position VT to separate from JJ next season if performance targets are not met. Give JJ some additional salary money to upgrade his assistants. Set targets. Minimum 8 ACC wins and an overall 16 win minimum season. If then numbers aren’t there, JJ goes after next season.

    1. Or, hire a better coach to insure that we don’t lose these top players, as we saw happen once CJJ was hired.

    2. Oh how generous your suggestions are for someone who cannot get the job done. Totally disagree. Now is the time for change!

  3. Worst team fundamentally that Ive seen. Took most of the season for the coach to realize they could not run and that the strength was the tall and mobile front line that he could use on defense, and he finally packed them back into the zone that allowed them to become competitive. To top it all he named a freshman team captain, proclaimed him the best player on the team and took him to the ACC media day –an honor usually reserved for the older and more proven players. The constant and reoccurring injuries makes one wonder about the practicing schedule–could easing up have allowed them to show up in better condition for games, especially the in conference ?–or was he trying to prove how hard he could make them work-another sign of inexperience. The coach showed thru actions that he was the one on the team with the “youth” stigma. Appears to be a fine young man, but totally in over his head. Who could, or should have expected anything else.

  4. How will paying another coach to not coach help us?

    Lets see…

    Pay Jim weaver not to be AD

    Pay Seth Greenberg not to coach.

    …and pay James Johnson not to be our current coach?

    What kind of money trees does Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College grow?

  5. What did we as fans expect to see this year? It played out as I expected. If the proven correct coach with a track record is out there and attainable, get him. Don’t make a change just to make a change. Go Hokies!

    1. That’s my only concern…I would disagree with anyone who thinks we need to make a change for change sake..THAT possibility concerns me and could very well set us farther back!

      Otherwise, I think Tailgate Guru nailed it…A very thoughtful article!

  6. IMO, this all boils down to Whit determining who is out there and available and can we afford that person. With what we must pay Weaver for 2 more years, Seth for 2 or 3 more years and then 3 years for JJ, there is not much money available for hiring a top flight coach. Like it or not, Whit may not have a choice but to wait another year or more ………… unless of course one of you out there will pony up about $2-3 million.

  7. Ready for some new blood. JJ is a nice guy and as the saying goes nice guys finish last .I think Eric Green kidnapped us over the hire too. We finished last with him and would have finished last without him. People we deserve a real coach not a replacement.

  8. It is pure nonsense to suggest that if Whit Babcock does not hire immediately, that has done a surpassingly weak job of preparing for this decision since the day he first applied for his new job. He would not have started to prepare for this decision until he had the AD job in hand. We have enough negativity without establishing unrealistic (or impossible) expectations for our new AD. The worst thing he could do would be to impulsively hire a new coach and then find out that he made a bad decision; then we would have a serious buyout financial problem on top of the problems that we already have.

  9. I have been and remain torn over this entire situation. I definitely want “change” but in the quality of recruits and in the amount of sickness and injuries that JJ has endured in the past 2 years not just in W-L results. JJ was dealt a lousy hand to begin with. De-commits and transfers decimated an already thin core of players he had to work with. He still recruited some good raw talent and he may have his best recruit coming in next year along with a couple more promising recruits added to a transfer and a player the NCAA deemed ineligible that will be available. The returning players will have a year of experience behind them, Wilson will not have to play 35+ minutes a game and the only players we lose are one that has been very inconsistent and has trouble handling the ball and playing defense and a post player that has had a very less than stellar career from day one. I believe that the glass will be more than half full next year.

    I, too, question JJ’s coaching abilities but, when I step back and look at the overall picture (and not just the W-L results), I cannot in good fair judgement evaluate just how good a coach JJ will turn out to be if given a fair shake. I do know his players, for the most part, have stood behind him, played hard and never gave up. That alone says he must be doing some things right.

    Regardless of how this turns out one of 2 things will result. JJ will be retained for one more year to give him a chance to play with a full deck OR JJ will be fired and we will never know what he could have accomplished if he had a full deck to play with!!

  10. The real issue at this point is whether a change can produce a result in the future (and hopefully the next guy would get more than a two year future) and (and the is a big and), whether the Hokie faithful can pony up the money to make a meaningful change. UVA bought a former coach of the year for $1.7 million. Their head coaches salary is probably more than what we spend on all of our basketball personnel. To get to that league of salary we would also have to have enough to pay Seth, JJ, and Weaver for a couple of years. There is also muttering about a new football coach. Our football staff, recruiting budgets, etc. is also low. It might be a good “value bet” to hold onto JJ until we have the war chest to replace him (and provide decent assistant salaries and numbers) on the chance his recruiting shows promise (I think it does given the state of the program).
    Half our subscribers apparently don’t donate at all and refuse to attend (or more importantly buy tickets), if we aren’t winning. The big issue is not our happiness but whether we are willing to support Virginia Tech athletics. We don’t have the living alumni numbers of many of our competitors but we do have a lot of alumni in high salary jobs I would guess (engineers and business for starters). The new AD will need to develop these donors.
    Since the great Miami walk that TSL turned out (for which TSL should be appropriately proud), the articles have gotten more and more negative and the solution is always to change coaches. The other half of that is the so called Hokie Nation. The downturn in football and basketball fortunes has exposed the Hokie Nation. Hopefully it has “burned off” some of the less than faithful and those left will form the core that will finance and support the coming decade or two. Who said “if you aren’t part of the solution you are part of the problem?”

  11. I have been going back and forth between “JJ must go” and “JJ deserves another year” for the past couple of weeks, but after reading this very well written post/article, I find that I am now firmly in the “go” camp. I don’t doubt that JJ is a nice guy who has been dealt a bad hand, but the reality is that Whit must do what is best for the VT basketball program as a whole, and I am now convinced that what is best is to make a change.

    1. Agreed. I, like you, have gone back and forth. (Mostly as a “fairness” to JJ issue)

      “do what is best for the VT basketball program”….what a radical point of view.
      No more ill timed spontaneous combustion firing decisions and “see who’s in the hallway” hires. Instead, a plan, well thought out and executed.

      In perplexing times such as these, it is always good to ask WWWD? (What Would Weaver Do)
      ….and then do the opposite.

  12. Still can’t believe those posts wanting to give JJ another year. This was a wrong hire and yes Jim Weaver is to blame for making that decision. Hiring the wrong person for the job is problem #1 and being the wrong person in the job is problem #2. I cannot see this ship changing course without a new captain and that folks means a new coach. The time is now and yes the fans will not tolerate more time even is some out there are comparing this to Frank Beamer’s beginning with Tech football. JJ is no Frank Beamer! He is a good person, works hard and has many positive things I could say about him. The negative is he cannot coach at this level, didn’t have the experience to be a head coach at this level and cannot get this ship back on track. This is a business decision and I am confident Whit will make the right decison. I hope there is someone out there with a vision for bb for VT. We have suffered long enough and been embarrassed long enough and I hope the AD seizes the moment for future bb at VT. GREAT ARTICLE AND I CONCUR WITH THE COMMENTS 100%!

    1. Coach Frank Beamer had coached for 15 years before become HC at VT, with 6 years previous head coaching experience upon arriving at VT. He also initially operated under NCAA-sanctioned reductions in scholarships and similar issues from the previous regime. Apples and Oranges, with an occasional grape.

  13. For a good portion of the season, JJ has started 3 projects, a walk-on, and an underachieving senior. Based on ehat he has had to work with, I don’t see how any of the “coaches” that post on TSL can determine whether he is qualified to coach or not. I personally think he got about the best possible results with what he had to work with.
    Unless there is a very good replacement available, I think retaining him, while the AD focuses on improving other areas of the program, is the best course of action.

    1. I tend to agree. Tough situation for sure. Remember Johnson had already left Tech for Clemson so it feels a bit different than if he had not been heading out. Weaver really messed this up.

  14. While you are venting your disappointment on and writing with your poison pen, play this music.
    Because 3 contributors have been out basically since we started conference play the starting 5 played too many minutes …

    The first thing to suffer when a player gets tired is his shooting. Why does the team lose close games going down the stretch? Fatigue, more so than the other team.

    If you think your rantings on this and other web sites is going to determine whether JJ stays are leaves … me thinks you are dilusional or you value your opinion way way beyond what it is worth.

    You guys remind me of the long haired guys on campus in the late 60’s. No one really cared what they thought either.

    1. I think the first thing to suffer when a player gets tired is his defense. You slow down, you don’t keep yourself between the offense and the basket as well, and you end up fouling more because you are too tired to keep yourself in the right positions. Shooting is more muscle memory than anything, so I think a good player can still shoot well when they are tired…whether or not they can get open for the shot is another issue.

    2. Huh? He’s “ranting,” “venting” and writing with a “poison pen?” Actually, most reasonable people would call it “expressing an opinion.”

      Oh, and those long-haired guys on campus in the 60s? They were expressing their opinions as well. And plenty of people cared what they thought.

      Sounds like you have a pretty rigid view of the world.

    3. Wow – I guess if somebody doesn’t agree with you, then you don’t care what they think. I find this article to be very level-headed. Let’s see you write a RATIONAL counterpoint rather than attacking the writer.

    4. You have your right to your opinion.

      Will Stewart was right on.

      Oh those 60’s, (Viet Nam)!!!

  15. With due respect to Will and Chris, this may be the most well written article on TSL in a long, long time. Great points. JJ seems to be a quality individual that I would love to have as my neighbor, but he appears to be over his head as an ACC head coach. I have said many times this year that VT seems to have to lowest basketball IQ of any team I’ve ever seen. Just look at our end of game decisions. And it happens over and over again. It’s time for a change!

    1. VT Chip
      I am in complete agreement.
      This is the best article I have seen on TSL in quite some time.

  16. Coaches matter. I live near Baylor University. Their basketball team was decimated with a rogue coach and yet a few years later with the right hire, they were in the final 4. Their football team was the laughing stock of Div-1 and yet just a few years after the right hire they had a Heisman trophy winner and almost made it to the championship game. The right coach and coaching staff can make a difference. It is time to start the process to rebuild a program that needs to be rebuilt.

    Whit, we’re counting on you to start the ship on the right course.

  17. You hit the nail on the head,

    “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.”

    Was this also written when Seth left and JJ took over? Should you add, if no improvement after two years you get fired? Tech reguarly has 20 plus wins a season, anything less we can’t stand for, if we don’t reach that mark we panic? This is not Duke, or even UVA for that matter. What if we won 17 games and lost in the first round of the ACC tourney this year, this team and the 17 winner team would both be at home watching right now. Does it really make a difference?

    So you want to do this again? Is two years long enough? In my opinion I think he needs more time. Two bad seasons I can live with, after all we never really had a high bar to begin with, so I am willing to be patient.

    1. Patient? How do you recover lost mega revenue from your Men’s BB program that started last year and increased dramatically this year. Loss of season ticket holders, loss of general attendence and lost of concession revunue just to name a few.

      It’s not just JJ’s X’s and O’s there are many other situations that are present that have been reported on and verified.

  18. Coach J has two seasons, one 13-19 and one 9-22. Coach K was 17-13 first year then 10-17 and 11-17. The Coach K era started in 1982. In March of 1983 Coach K suffered the second straight 17 loss season and a “crushing” 43 point loss to uva. People were not happy! Midway through 1984 despite a mere 50% record, his contract was extended. Google search… its out there. The point is, what if Duke AD had dismissed Coach K…? It is not a simple thing, if it were, we could do it. It is a decision that Whit will make and I am sure “we” will not ever learn the true reasons why or why not he does what he does. I’m all in with Whit! It is always a good time to be alive and a Hokie!

    1. Apples to oranges comparison to me. Unlike us, Duke has always has a BB pedigree. Coach K had previous HC experience at Army. He was a protege of Bobby Knight. He had much more street cred to be a HC than JJ.

      The ship known as VT BB is sinking fast and the leak needs to be plugged now.

  19. Very well stated opinion I agree with.

    Ironically, perhaps Jim Weaver’s most important and lasting contribution to this university will be that he has showed us all how very,very ugly and embarrassing it can get when one tries to run a major college basketball program with cheap coaching hires. And its not about JJ at all, but the chain of events that Jim Weaver created that led to the demise of the program. I have confidence that Whit Babcock will do what he knows has to be done, if nothing more than it being the very reason he was brought in as the new AD two years ahead of Weaver’s original retirement plan.

  20. Great article BUT I have to agree with several replies here online. Weaver is to blame for this mess..he was and still is the culprit. Why not take the money owes him and pay the new BB coach. Sounds weird but why not punish the man who caused most of the problem in the BB program. Some might think of it as a harsh punishment but I think it is perfectly appropriate to the man who was the former AD!!!

  21. Time to try someone else. A new coach may not work out, but we won’t know until we try, and it couldn’t get much worse, it is worth the risk.

  22. Despite your conclusion, you’ve stiill left a window for JJ, that is, what if there’s not another candidate at this moment? Or is switching out for another JJ (that is, before he was proven) equivalent better than doing nothing?

    I have moved from “another year” to “time to move on” though, but there are risks to both waiting too much or jumping in quickly.

  23. Like it or not, the reality is that Coach Johnson is on the hot seat. To give him a one year reprieve to right the ship puts him on the hot seat yet again next year. Can anybody cite an example of any other coach for any major college sport who survived the hot seat? There may have been somebody but I can’t think of any examples and such success stories will be few and far between. To put a coach in this situation is the kiss of death. UVA did this with Al Groh, and although none of us Hokies had any sympathy for him, it was a stupid decision on the part of UVA AD to do so (in my opinion) it turned out poorly for both Coach G and UVA. The worse thing that can be done for Coach J is to put him on the hotseat. Even if our fans want compassion or respect for Coach J, neither will happen if the coach is placed yet again on the hot seat. It won’t work, and I hope we don’t go there.

    Harry R, Class of 70

  24. I especially like your perspective on the AD and I agree 100%. The AD came to VT knowing there was a big problem and he needs to fix it. If JJ is not the right person, he doesn’t need another year to fix it. He needs to find the “right guy” and then round up the resources to make it happen. That’s his job and he knew the circumstances coming in!

  25. There is a parallel to this situation in VT sports history although it’s been a while. Frank’s first two years were 5-17. Like I said, that’s 28 years ago. So maybe, in this day and age, the best option is to cut our losses and move on.

    To me, a decision to change is made much more difficult based on Coach Johnson’s outstanding character-likability and the hand he was dealt.

    It’s Whit’s call and I don’t envy him the decision-but that’s what we’re paying him to do. Lead.

  26. Very good article , well stated. Thank You ……I think our new AD will do what is best for VT and it’s BB programs. IMO, he didn’t start to work early just for the heck of it. He had a reason and this important reason is VT’s BB program. I trust his decision on When and Who ! Thank you TSL for sharing this article.

  27. Great article. I agree completely. VT Men’s BB is losing mega revenue and that needs to be reversed and your article clarifies how to reverse the situation. Even though VT will still be paying Weaver I believe for 2 years, Greenberg I believe for 2 years and then JJ for 3 years and then increase the salaries of a new coaching staff and give them the financial resorces to succeed and the revenues should increase instilling positives into the program. This is Whit’s responsibilty and from his experiences he knows what to do.

  28. Wrong. The blame goes on Weaver. Give JJ another year. When he emptied the bench on senior night one person I had never heard of entered the game. Let Phil Jackson deal with that.

    1. Give him another year to do what? The blame is on Weaver but this guy is way over his head and should not be an ACC coach at this point in time. Best thing for Whit to do is to get a new coach on board as soon as possible so he can start recruiting for 2015.

    2. Yes it was a poor hire and you can lay that on Weaver. The reality is that if the job was open now we would never even entertain the idea of hiring Johnson. He was not qualified for the job and cannot energize our fan base. Johnson will do will financially from the deal and his pending termination. He will be much better off than if he never had the position head coach at VT. Problem is our program won’t be and giving Johnson another year only extends the probably that is directly in front of our faces.

      We need to solve it now.

    3. Another year to fail and be a coach in limbo? That’s the worst that can happen for recruiting. This program needs a change just from all the negative attitude just like the article states. Weaver ruined it but let’s try and fix it as soon as possible.

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