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."
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.
Johnson was part of all four of those teams, as well as the star-crossed bunch that lost 11 of 16 games decided by five points or less last season en route to a 16-17 mark.
At the same time, Johnson's learning curve isn't likely to be as steep at Virginia Tech as it could be for someone else. He knows the administration. He's recruited to Blacksburg and knows the challenges of attracting talent to a relatively remote area and the need to sell recruits on the allure of soaking in the spotlight in a small town.
"Those things, just knowing and being familiar with the entire lay of the land, I think will make the transition easier," Johnson said. "There's still going to be transition, and there's going to be some speed bumps, but it's going to be a little easier."
Perhaps not initially.
In the weeks after Johnson's hire, forward Dorian Finney-Smith transferred after one year in the program; he landed at Florida. Signee Montrezl Harrell asked for his release and wound up at Louisville.
Just eight scholarship players are eligible for next season.
"If a young man doesn't feel like this is the place for him or he doesn't feel like he wants to be here or wants to come, then I understand that, too," Johnson said. "I want people that want to be here. I think if you want to be here, you're going to work hard and embrace everything we have here and you're going to enjoy the ride."
Johnson's hire did, however, ensure guard Erick Green would remain. The senior, the ACC's third-leading returning scorer, thought his time with the Hokies was finished when the coaching change occurred.
Yet the hire of the assistant who recruited him and a reminder of the limited high-level opportunities he received out of high school convinced him playing for Johnson was the right move.
"He took on a chance on me when no one [else] took a chance on me," Green said. "Nobody thought I was going to be who I was, but he always believed in me. [My mom] said 'Why can't you stick around and be with him?' That really hit me. He did take a chance on me and got me where I am today. So I'm definitely going to make sure I get him on the right track."
There are valid concerns about how Johnson's first season will unfold simply because of the limited numbers he's working with.
One serious injury would create a serious strain on the roster, regardless of coaching.
There's little doubt Johnson, who turns 41 later this week, will have problems relating to his players.
"I remember the first time I talked to him, he sounded so country," Green said. "I never met him and got a phone call and was like 'Who is this guy?' When you meet him, he's real cool and outgoing, funny, telling jokes. He reminds me of a younger [guy], like he's in his 20s, joking and having a good time. That's his personality."
It's what helped him in various stops as an assistant, including his work at Virginia Tech. He also was part of Ed DeChellis' first staff at Penn State, with a priority placed on recruiting.
"That was his strength, no question," said DeChellis, now Navy's coach. "He was a good recruiter, got along with families well, really embraced players. JJ was a guy who I thought did a good job of talking to players and getting to know them. They really felt comfortable coming to him with problems and issues and he was really accessible to them. I think he'll be the same way. I think he'll be a players' coach."
Green said Johnson connected with players in several ways as an assistant. During practice, Johnson was an energetic presence. In the locker room, the music aficionado could be counted upon for some impromptu singing.
Neither Johnson nor Green anticipates a substantial shift in the coach's relationship with his players. One guiding force in Johnson's career certainly won't change with his promotion.
"Those guys know that I'm going to tell them the truth and keep it real with them, and that's how I'm going to continue to be as a head coach," Johnson said. "If they need a little bit of a push, I'm going to give them a little bit of a push. If they do something great, I'm going to let them know, 'Hey that's great, that's how we want it done.' Whatever the opportunity is, I'm going to let them know how I feel about it and where we're at."
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Patrick Stevens has covered Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic college sports for more than a decade. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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