Virginia Tech fires James Johnson after two seasons

It’s official. James Johnson has been fired as the men’s head basketball coach at Virginia Tech. His tenure lasted just two seasons and less than two full calendar years. It got off to inauspicious start and never got on track. JJ finishes his VT tenure with a 22-41 (35%) record (6-30 in ACC regular season games and 0-2 in the ACC Tournament). That percentage is third worst of Tech’s 23 basketball coaches, and the worst that any Hokie coach has had in the last 80 years. (For reference, ricky “program bomb” stokes won 40% of his games aided largely by a year in A-10.)

I’m both surprised and not surprised. I’m surprised that Virginia Tech is going to eat three years of a contract, especially after former athletics director Jim Weaver gave JJ his blessing for another year.

Also, Tech has a history of underpaying coaches. In fact, Johnson was the lowest paid men’s basketball coach in the ACC and the Hokies got what they paid for; a team that finished dead last in each of JJ’s two seasons at the helm.

At the same time, I am not surprised that new Athletics Director Whit Babcock, who has been on the job for exactly one month, decided to make a change. His hiring made headlines, especially given his salary. To come in and do nothing with a program that has finished last three straight seasons, and seen declining attendance for seven straight years, likely would not have gone over well with the dwindling fan base.

As most rational fans would agree, JJ was in over his head from the beginning. No one begrudges him for taking the job. If you want to be a head basketball coach and an ACC team offers you a job, you take it. The fault of JJ’s failed tenure lies squarely at the feet of former AD Jim Weaver. Instead of conducting a national search after botching the Seth Greenberg firing, he chose the easy way and hired an assistant coach with no previous head coaching experience. JJ was the only ACC coach who had zero head coaching experience before taking over at an ACC program. And his teams performed about as well as you’d expect.

So, here we are, for the second time in two years, looking for a new head coach. Babcock’s shown he’s not afraid to drop the ax, but what he does next will determine the future success or failure of not only the basketball program, but also his tenure as AD.

Below is the official release from HokieSports.com:

Virginia Tech Director of Athletics Whit Babcock announced today that James Johnson has been relieved of his duties as head men’s basketball coach. In making the announcement, Babcock said a national search for Johnson’s replacement will begin immediately.

“I want to thank Coach Johnson for his dedication and hard work for our university and our basketball program over the past seven years,” Babcock said. “A change of this significance affects many people and is never taken lightly, but I felt a change and a new direction was necessary for the long term, best interest of our department.”

Johnson just completed his second season as head coach of the Hokies. He spent the previous five seasons on the Tech staff, serving as an assistant from 2007-2011 before being promoted to associate head coach prior to the 2012-13 season. He had accepted an assistant coaching position at Clemson on April 13, 2012, but returned to Blacksburg soon thereafter to take the head coaching position previously held by Seth Greenberg.

Babcock will meet with the media at 9:30 am on Tuesday in the Shott Media Center. The media session will be streamed live on hokiesports.com.

This will be Babcock’s only media availability until the announcement of the new coach.

This post was written by:

- who has written 235 posts on Tech Hoops.

Cope is a Virginia Tech graduate and veteran sports journalist with a career spanning television, radio, and newspapers. He's the recipient of three Virginia Press Association awards for his writing and design, as well as a CASE Gold Award for his feature writing. Cope has covered the Hokies since 1993 for various local and national news organizations. He's been with TechHoops.com since 2007.

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  • Chris

    I can’t take joy in another man losing his job… that being said, this was a move that needed to be made. I agree with the writeup Cope, as it appeared JJ was in over his head with this position. The ACC is no place to learn how to coach on the fly; I don’t blame JJ one bit for taking the position, but this was doomed from the start.

    It’s now up to Babcock to clean up Weaver’s mistakes. This was a great first step in doing so, but now he has to hire a proven coach. Shaka Smart is the dream, but probably an unrealistic candidate. Whoever we hire, he needs to be someone who has at least a little head coaching experience. There’s no sense in firing JJ if we’re going to hire a similar candidate (someone cheap).

    I think Babcock will want to make a splash, to be honest. He knows there’s not much he can do with the football program (Beamer will be here for as long as he wants), and this is the next biggest sport. I do think we’ll hire a big(ish) name coach when it’s all said and done.

    • http://www.thegarycope.com/ Cope

      My question is, if you’re going to hire a big fish, you would presumably think it’s a coach from a team that’s currently in the field of the NCAA tournament, right? If that’s the case, is Babcock going to sit on the release until after said coach loses in the tournament?

  • hooleyhoopty

    By all accounts JJ is a great person so I hate this for him and his staff. However, I’m not sure what could have truly been accomplished in a 3rd year. It would have likely been another year of declining attendance which means loss of revenue. Along those lines, Babcock is trying to grow the Hokie club and having the worst basketball program in the ACC is not going to fire up the masses. We look even worse given UVA’s recent and well deserved success. Sure, in the short term eating JJ’s contract is going to cost money; however, the sooner VT gets back to winning (filling the stands) and into the NCAA’s, the sooner the program returns to being profitable.

  • King

    Exciting news for fans & reason for hope this offseason. Best wishes to JJ. He performed as well as could be expected under the circumstances. It’s a new dawn for Hokie basketball.

  • deathrow821

    Hey Niemo, add Danny Manning to the poll for who I’d like to see as the next coach. Young guy (47) who was a great assistant at KU and in 2 years has turned a bad Tulsa team into an 11 seed.

    • http://www.thegarycope.com/ Cope

      Yeah Niemo, get on that. Go change the poll question.

      • Pat Leonard

        Cope, maybe you should go do it. It’s quite obvious that Niemo won’t be getting around to it any time soon.

        • http://www.thegarycope.com/ Cope

          Fine. I changed it. Danny Manning is now an option. God, I remember watching him in 1988. I’m so old.

          • deathrow821

            Oh, is Niemo not near his computer? My bad. Thanks for changing it. He was a damn good player at KU and was probably the best big man coach in the country.

          • Niemo

            I don’t have rights to create/update polls. Apparently Cope doesn’t trust me and thinks the polls would all be about G-Club polls.

          • http://www.thegarycope.com/ Cope

            Lies. LIES! You have full admin rights just like me. It’s just easier to text me and say, “New poll question…” It’s all good, though. Nothing a bottle good scotch can’t fix.

  • Pat Leonard

    I don’t know how much I should pigeon-hole JJ, but after seeing two years of him as a head coach, I think he is the perfect fit as an assistant coach. I loved how he seemed to find undervalued 3-star recruits and he seems to be a solid recruiter. He’s also a great person… a guy who should be mentoring young players. However, I did not see much of an ability to be able to teach the game of basketball to his players or make favorable in-game adjusments. The players seem to be exactly the same on the first day of the season as the last. They never seemed to learn how to get open for shots or give the ball to each other in places where they had their best scoring percentages. On defense, they would cut under screens on guys who they should follow over the screen and vice-versa. Transition defense was always rough. They never played like 5 guys on a string, helping the helper, etc. I get it, it’s really hard to teach 18, 19, and 20 year old guys to do that. However, there are many other coaches out there who can do it successfully. It was the right time for a change. I really do hope JJ lands on his feet though… I’m sure he will, he brings a lot of value to any team.

  • Drew

    Good guy or not, this needed to happen. Hated the hire (not the man) from day 1 so I’m more than thrilled its over. It’s time we all move forward.

  • Matthew

    So – today – we owe just short of 2.5 million – spread out over a couple of years to Weaver, Greenberg, and now Johnson – and we have to pay a new coach, what I think will be between 2 and 2.5 million per year (but he won’t make more than Beamer). So, over two years, we’re looking at shelling out between 6.5 and 7.5 million dollars. Babcock was known for raising money – he’s going to have to do that and some – and find a reputable hire in the process. Somehow I have more confidence, though, than I did before when Weaver made the last hire – he was swift in his decision-making process – and you had the feel that he knows what needs to be done. He made the big hire at Cincy – and I can see him making the big hire in Blacksburg.

  • Chris_atl

    After reading this I think I’ve just been called irrational. Oh wait, you said “most”. Ok, I’m good.

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