CLEMSON — Shortly after he was officially named as Clemson’s newest men’s basketball assistant last week, James Johnson was on the road again.
That’s just how he wanted it. Last week was one of four spring recruiting evaluation periods provided by the NCAA, and Johnson needed to take full advantage.
That has become his life in 19 years as a college basketball assistant. Johnson has forged a reputation as a solid recruiter by building relationships as an assistant at Virginia Tech, Penn State, College of Charleston, George Mason, Old Dominion and Elon. As Johnson puts it, he’s gone “all over the Eastern Seaboard.”
Recruiting is about relationships, and Johnson hopes to tap into them to help build Brad Brownell’s program.
“When I go back, I can pick up the phone and say, ‘This is James Johnson at Clemson,’” he said. “And they remember me when I was at certain places.”
When Rick Ray left Brownell’s staff to become Mississippi State’s head coach, it left a void for an energetic, young, African-American assistant. That is a role Johnson can fill capably, and he hopes to do so quickly.
He thinks he’ll be able to step right into Ray’s shoes, continue relationships and build new ones.
“I think every stop I’ve been at, in different areas, you’ve got to kind of get to know the lay of the land in the area, get to know the important people, the AAU coaches and head coaches in that area,” he said. “You don’t just work those guys while you’re working there. You continue to keep a relationship with those guys, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job at that. I’ve been able to go back in certain areas when I left the place and get a kid or two from that area.”
Johnson spent five years at Virginia Tech, rising from an assistant coach to associate head coach, Seth Greenberg’s top assistant. Tech and Clemson are very similar; both are football-first schools with limited basketball tradition, and both are located in somewhat out-of-the-way rural areas.
Johnson knows the type of player he must recruit at Clemson, and he’s comfortable with it.
“it’s got to be for the right young man, and the young man has got to be right for us,” he said. “We’ve got to find guys who can be successful student-athletes at Clemson. The same kid might not be the same kind of kid who can be successful at Virginia Tech or Georgia Tech in Atlanta. It’s got to be the right fit for us. It’s got to be that he likes a college town. If he’s looking for a big city, we’re not Atlanta, New York or Boston. It’s got to be the right fit.”
He has already hit the ground running to find those fits. Johnson was on the road last weekend, and will be again this weekend.
All the while, he is rekindling relationships and building new ones in a compressed period.
“It’s a good time for us to see a lot of kids in one area,” he said of the new recruiting periods. “A lot of times we get to work a lot of kids during the season. You go out and see kids at high school games, the head coach’s not able to get out as much during the season because of being with the team and certain obligations that he has.
“That’s why we mix up the (in-season scouting), so that when you don’t have a scout, you can be out on the road recruiting. That’s why we like this, because you can see a lot of different guys at one time, and every coach can see all of the guys that we’ve been recruiting throughout the year.”