- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2012

BLACKSBURG, Va. — At the front edge of James Johnson’s desk sits a box. Tucked inside are a ring and a watch, both mementos from coaching in the 2006 Final Four.

Off to the side of his office is a chair from that same Final Four, another souvenir from the most memorable weeks of his time as a George Mason assistant and a nod to what’s possible under the right conditions.

After a spring of tumult, Johnson is Virginia Tech’s head coach, the rare longtime assistant whose first chance to run a program comes in the ACC. And he brings with him a message, manner and approach all aimed the same direction.

“My voice,” Johnson said recently, “is opportunistic.”

And why not? The philosophy served him well as a small-college player and a winding 19-year career as an assistant.

Asked to become a defensive stopper, Johnson helped Division III Ferrum to two conference titles. He joined the program’s staff upon graduating in 1993 and has spent all but one year as a college assistant since.

“You always have an opportunity to do something, but what you make of that opportunity is completely up to you,” said Bill Pullen, Johnson’s coach at Ferrum. “He took ahold of that mindset and never lost it and never looked back since.”

His head coaching break didn’t arrive without some turbulence. After five years as a Hokies assistant, Johnson left in April to join Brad Brownell’s staff at Clemson. Later that month, Virginia Tech unexpectedly fired Seth Greenberg.

A week later, Johnson was on his way back to southwestern Virginia for a formal introduction. Or, maybe more accurately, a re-introduction.

Johnson, after all, doesn’t plan to change just because he moved his office across the hall in Virginia Tech’s basketball facility. His desk decor suggests the program’s aspirations won’t be modest.

“It’s just a reminder with hard work, it can be done,” Johnson said. “I don’t think anybody thought George Mason would make it to the Final Four. I don’t think people are thinking Virginia Tech can make it to the Final Four. This is something I look at and my players when they come in and we see that it’s kind of a reminder of what we’re working toward.”

Possible bumps

That’s not to say Johnson’s first head coaching venture sets up to be a breeze. Quite the opposite, actually.

This is still Virginia Tech, the not-so-proud home to more Selection Sunday misery per capita over the past five years than any college town in the country.

Greenberg became a symbol of postseason snubs when the Hokies averaged 22 wins between 2007-08 and 2010-11 without earning a nod from the NCAA tournament selection committee.

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