Teel Time: Jones, Larranaga say staff will be critical for Virginia Tech rookie head coach Johnson

More than most head coaches, James Johnson's success will hinge on his staff. That's because he's not only a rookie big whistle but also working at college basketball's highest level.

Virginia Tech has hired Johnson, a 19-year assistant, to replace Seth Greenberg. Most such appointments come in less prestigious, pressurized conferences such as the Big South and Southern.

There newbies can stumble in relative obscurity, without weekly parsing from Jay Bilas and Seth Davis. Not so in the ACC.

Jeff Jones remembers. In 1990 he took over Virginia’s program and, at age 29, was the ACC’s youngest head coach. Johnson is 40, but as with Jones, his assistants will be invaluable.

"He's an experienced coach who's prepared his entire career for an opportunity like this," Jones, now American's head coach, said Monday. "Quite frankly, the Xs and Os part, the dealing with the media, the dealing with the alumni and the recruiting, he knows what to expect."

At Virginia, Jones assembled a first-rate staff. Tom Perrin was a long-time friend and co-worker under Terry Holland. Dennis Wolff had ACC experience at Wake Forest, and Brian Ellerbe came from South Carolina.

"Tom was a great friend and brought continuity," Jones said. "Dennis and Brian were coaches who didn't need me to teach them how to be an assistant coach at this level. … Having those accomplished guys on my staff (was critical)."

Miami coach Jim Larranaga, who in 2005 hired Johnson as a George Mason assistant, echoed Jones.

"It's my belief that your staff is what makes you look good," Larranaga said. "You can't do it all on your own. You can't coach every player. You've got to have a great staff."

At George Mason, Johnson replaced Bill Courtney, who took a similar position at Providence. Courtney later worked at Virginia and Virginia Tech before succeeding Steve Donahue as Cornell’s head coach when Donahue took over for Al Skinner at Boston College.

"When I lost Bill Courtney, who for nine years was my best friend and confidant and was such an important part of our program, I thought we needed someone very, very special to take his place," Larranaga said. "Bill Courtney left some big shoes to fill, and J.J. was able to do it in a different way."

Jones and Johnson go back to the 1990s, when Johnson worked as a counselor at Virginia's summer camp. At night, after the campers were ushered to bed, Jones, Johnson and others played spirited stickball games in an auxiliary area of University Hall.


"He's just a really, really nice guy," Jones said, "a likable guy."

Still, given his inexperience, many will be skeptical.

"He can't worry about those people," Jones said, "because the only thing that will satisfy them is if he wins."

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Here's a link to my Daily Press print columns, including Tuesday's on Tech's hiring of Johnson.