Here is the crux of what I'm going to try and explain my thoughts on; Virginia Tech should hire Bruce Pearl as it's next head basketball coach, this year or next. However, before I start in on that I want to provide some context about myself that I hope will illuminate for those that read this why I feel the way I do.
When I left VT/Blacksburg in 2008 a year after my graduation in 2007 to head down the road into east Tennessee to attend Grad School at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, I left as someone who really didn't care at all about the basketball program. Having been a freshman in '03, football defined my sports affiliation with Virginia Tech and honestly my recollection is that the Women's team was generally a better performer than the Men's team. I partially chose UTK as my grad school based on their football history and their appearance in the 2007 SEC Title Game (which if they had won we'd have gotten our 2nd national title shot, and I think could have gotten the Crystal Football, but that's a separate topic). So frankly I was disappointed that during my tenure at UTK the football team was miserable and has continued to stay that way. There is a silver lining though, going to Tennessee introduced me to being able to enjoy college basketball. Thompson Boling Arena was a far more electric building than Neyland Stadium in my time there, and with the Lady Vols as the standard championships and excellence were the name of the game down there for basketball. I loved "The Summit" and Pat is a legend (and a really nice lady if you get to chat with her), but the one guy who entranced most of my grad program (Sports Management) was the head basketball coach, Bruce Pearl. This was a man that showed up to Lady Vol games painted orange, and was down with the students causing a ruckus court side for the home team. He made the Basketball Volunteers the big ticket discussion point around Knoxville which is a tough thing to do when football dominates most peoples' discussions and Pat Summit and her Lady Vols were THE basketball show in town for the past 30 years.
This brings me to the first question I think is worth raising about the VT basketball situation; What are our expectations for the team? We moved into the ACC in 04 and with Seth Greenberg had some decent years, but could never seem to make the NCAA Tournament and we frequently bowed out of the NIT despite #1 or #2 seeds. I believe there is no reason with our fan base and the general quality of our facilities (Cassell could use some renovation, but that new basketball practice facility is real nice), we shouldn't be a team competing to finish in the top half of a strong ACC, and we should be pushing for NCAA Tournament Bids. This was a big part of the reason Greenberg isn't the coach, he seemingly couldn't get the team over the hump. For a place with little basketball pedigree, we should still be a competitive team that has the opportunity to win the ACC or at the least be able to be in a position to play games that matter in deciding it for us, be that in the regular season or in the ACC Tournament.
Having established I believe our program should be A) Competitive in the upper half of our conference and B) Capable of winning conference championships, this leads me to my second question. Do we think James Johnson is the coach capable of getting us to that level of expectation? I don't believe that he is. I'm sure he's a nice person, and I have no doubt that he is working his hardest to help put a winning team on the court every game. Did he inherit a thin roster? Sure, and has the team been hampered by injury? Sure. However in watching this team the past 2 seasons, I cannot help but feel he has failed to fundamentally improve the product on the court. The team frequently plays with a lack of focus and execution at basic basketball tenants. I'm not nearly as knowledgeable about basketball as I am about football, but I know a good team when I see one, and I know a bad team when I see one. This team has been BAD the past 2 seasons under his direction. There has been a serious regression of players who are late in their careers and we squandered having the nation's leading scorer on our team in Erick Green last season. They seem incapable of playing quality defense and have frankly struggled to score as a group. I just don't see the foundation for the kind of improvement necessary to get this team to where my expectations for it lie with James Johnson at the helm. We can provide plenty of explanations and excuses for the teams performance, but we are the worst team in the ACC by a wide margin and the team has not improved enough over the course of the season (if at all to me) to justify keeping a coach who was a lazy hire by our last AD on the cheap. It is not his fault, and I wouldn't have turned the gig down either, but I think he was in over his head taking over VT as his first HC position.
I've written a lot here and most of it hasn't been about the topic at hand I started with. Time to get on task. I do not believe that James Johnson should be the basketball head coach after this season, and if he is I do not believe that he would last past next season short of a magical run in the NCAA Tournament and perhaps an ACC Title Regular Season or Tournament. His time in Blacksburg grows short and we should be looking to see who will replace him. I think we should be hoping for Bruce Pearl; the disgraced former coach of Tennessee, as well as Milwaukee, and Southern Indiana. I believe this for a few key reasons.
1) He has produced a winner at all of his coaching stops.
- He won an NCAA D-II title in his 3rd year as a HC at Southern Indiana, and never posted a season with less than 20 wins while the HC there.
- His team posted a winning record all 4 years he was the HC at Milwaukee, and he took a team from the Horizon League to the Sweet 16. Despite all the mid majors going deep the past few years that's a tough charge and a big accomplishment.
- While the Vols HC his teams never posted a losing record, and they made the NCAA Tournament every year he was the HC; including 3 Sweet 16 Trips and 1 Elite 8 Trip that was very close to being a Final Four run (a 1 pt loss to Michigan State I think we all know they're a pretty good program).
- His Vols teams beat some really good teams in his tenure; 2 wins over national Champion Florida in 2005/6 to go along with a rout of #2 Texas the same year, a rout of defending national champion #4 Florida in 2006/7, #1 Memphis in 2007/8 which got the Vols their first and only #1 ranking in the polls, and in 2010 he got Ws over #1 Kansas and #2 Kentucky.
- His Vols teams posted a number of school records including most Ws in a season (31 in 07/08), most points scored in a game (124 vs UNC Asheville in 2009), and helped his players establish firsts such as Most 3 point shots made in a game, most assists, most rebounds, and the first Triple Double in school history.
2) He can recruit & develop that talent.
- #12 class in the country in 2008
- #11 class in the country in 2010
- He had a good class committed in 2011 that fell apart with his NCAA investigation
- His players helped set new records as I've already mentioned at Tennessee, and not just for individual accolades.
- I'd like to write more here, but I'll admit it's not my strong suit.
3) His enthusiasm extends beyond just the game of basketball, but to the institution he works for.
I don't know during my time at Tennessee I saw a guy who was more passionate about nearly every Tennessee team that competed. You saw him everywhere on campus, from football games to the swim and dive team. He lived, and breathed the Big Orange in Knoxville and was one of their most outspoken supporters. He repped the Vols no matter where he was and he loved being a part of any student event on campus.
I think Bruce Pearl is the kind of coach that can elevate the Virginia Tech basketball program beyond my expectations for them. I think he is the kind of coach that has the charisma, knowledge, and ability to make Virginia Tech basketball just as attractive to recruits and fans around the country as Frank Beamer has done with the football program. He comes with some baggage to be sure. Thanks to his lack of honesty (and depending on how you look at it a lack of ethics and respect for NCAA regulations), he has a show cause attached to him until August of this year. Does this make him the easiest coach to get, or perhaps the most sensible? We could all use a bit of Frank Beamer's second chance generosity for a guy that made the mistake of trying to hide something minor and it turned into a huge penalty for him. Probably not, but we could be the first ones to give him a new place to call home and I believe if we could do that he would reward us with a basketball team we can all be proud of. If he didn't make that mistake he'd likely still be at Tennessee helping the Vols win a lot of games, but he did and you know what? That means that 2014 (or 2015) could be the Year of the Pearl in Blacksburg.