CLEMSON — Monday afternoon, an already-scheduled press briefing with new Clemson assistant head coach James Johnson took on major intrigue.
Virginia Tech fired head coach Seth Greenberg after nine years at the Hokies’ helm, making Johnson’s decision to take a lateral move and join Brad Brownell’s staff seemingly far clearer.
Johnson was Greenberg’s third assistant to make a lateral or downward move this offseason, and a fourth, John Richardson, was hired by Old Dominion Monday night, making the exodus complete.
So, did instability play a factor in Johnson’s move to Clemson, or was it strictly a chance to work with Brownell, a longtime friend from the pair’s Colonial Athletic Association days?
“I think in this business, coaches have to do what they think is best for their careers,” he said. “Guys make moves for different reasons, whether it’s family, location or league or familiarity with the head coach. Guys make moves for different reasons. My situation was an isolated situation with James Johnson.”
Virginia Tech athletic director Jim Weaver confirmed Monday that he offered Johnson the same salary that he’ll make at Clemson – $190,000 annually – but Johnson wasn’t interested in staying. Weaver said that the staff departures played a role, but weren’t the only factor in Greenberg’s firing.
Johnson said he was “very surprised” by Monday’s events.
“Coach Greenberg’s done a great job at Virginia Tech, put his stamp on that program and moved that program forward,” he said. “I’m a Virginia native, known Virginia Tech for a long time. Basketball for many years was not relevant there. He came and took that program from little-known to a national level on the toughest conference in the country.”
Several Virginia media outlets suggested Monday that Johnson could be a candidate for Greenberg’s old job. Johnson said he has “goals and aspirations to be a head coach one day” but said he was excited about his position here.
“I’m sure (rumors) may be out there, but I’m here, I’m happy to be here at Clemson and I’m very fortunate that Brad saw the things he saw in me to offer me the position as an assistant coach on his staff and have the opportunity to work with him,” he said.
Would he listen if the Hokies called?
“There’s a situation I’d need to sit and talk to Brad and see what his thoughts are,” Johnson said. “I have a great deal of respect in Brad and the way he’s done things, and how he’s come up in this business and positioned himself where he’s a very good coach in the ACC. I would rely on him for a lot of help in that situation.”
Brownell’s reputation for developing head coaches appeals to Johnson, too. He is replacing Rick Ray, who spent two years as the Tigers’ associate head coach before being hired as Mississippi State’s head coach. Johnson said he developed a respect for Brownell during their CAA days, which carried over to his Clemson tenure.
Brownell allows his assistants to get hands-on experience in all areas of the program and in-game coaching, something that Greenberg wasn’t exactly known for.
“I want to be a head coach,” Johnson said. “You have to do everything, have to have hands-on, and that’s what I want. It did appeal to me to be involved with speaking engagements, scouting reports, on the floor coaching and recruiting.”
For now, recruiting will be Johnson’s biggest responsibility. He hit the road last weekend, and will do so again this weekend for the spring evaluation and recruitment period.
Johnson is known as a talented recruiter, and he hopes to slip right into Ray’s proverbial shoes as the Tigers’ lead recruiter.
He coached at Penn State, George Mason and College of Charleston and Old Dominion before landing at Virginia Tech in 2007.
“Recruiting is one of my strengths,” he said. “I’ve been coaching college basketball 19 years and coached at a lot of different levels, coached under a few head coaches. My experience in the ACC, that’ll help. I think recruiting up and down the East coast, some of the areas Rick recruited, I can move right in and take over some of those areas.”