Avery Johnson believes he can make Alabama basketball a winner—and that he can do it quickly
Avery Johnson took a moment out of his introductory press conference at Alabama to recognize an old friend. Ben Jobe, the former basketball coach at Southern University, drove up from his home in Montgomery to attend Johnson’s introduction on Wednesday. With tears in his eyes, Johnson paused to thank Jobe for the coach’s impact on his career in basketball.
Once the tears were dry, Johnson admitted he didn’t always follow Jobe’s advice. Years ago, Jobe implored his former player to try a different career path. The coach saw potential in Johnson for bigger things, even joking that the former Southern guard should run for governor someday. “’AJ, what are you doing messing around with this basketball stuff?” Johnson recalled Jobe saying.
Johnson won’t serve in Alabama’s highest office anytime soon. The guy down the hall, Nick Saban, would be a more dangerous candidate, anyway. But if Johnson can revive Alabama basketball instead, he’ll quickly become a revered figure in the Yellowhammer State.
On Wednesday Johnson took the reins of an Alabama program in need of new life in the SEC. The Crimson Tide have been to just one NCAA tournament in the last 10 seasons. On the surface, Johnson and Alabama seems like an awkward marriage. But given the coach’s unique enthusiasm—and ‘Bama’s desperate need for a spark—Johnson could be the right guy at the right time.
Such attitude is a welcome change in Tuscaloosa after the tenure of Anthony Grant, who was fired after six seasons with Alabama on March 15. Grant compiled a 117-85 record with the Crimson Tide and led them to that one NCAA appearance (2012) during his tenure. But he failed to endear himself to a sizeable chunk of the Alabama fan base, a group that probably preferred a more affable personality.
Johnson brings a personality to Tuscaloosa, but his arrival also raises a few eyebrows. He comes to town with zero college coaching experience, having spent his only stints as a head coach in the NBA. Johnson coached the Dallas Mavericks from 2004-08 (to a record of 264-194) and the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets 2010-13 (176-60) before spending the last two years as an NBA analyst for ESPN. Johnson’s only experience with the letters S-E-C came via a teleprompter.
The Crimson Tide originally zeroed in on Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall as their top coaching candidate. But soon after Marshall accepted a raise upward of $3 million to remain with the Shockers, Alabama athletic director Bill Battle caught wind of Johnson’s interest in Alabama. Battle ventured to the coach’s home in Dallas and was quickly sold on Johnson’s potential.
“After a few hours,” Battle said, “he convinced me that he belonged in college basketball.”
On Wednesday Johnson showed off his ability to galvanize a fan base. He welcomed all former players back to Tuscaloosa. He turned to university trustees in attendance and offered to help market the Crimson Tide brand in any way necessary. Johnson compared his coaching philosophy to Gregg Popovich, the legendary coach of the San Antonio Spurs. In his first day on the job, Johnson said all the right things.
He didn’t even mind setting some high expectations. Alabama hasn’t won the SEC in more than a decade, but Johnson used Duke, this season’s NCAA champion, as the new standard in Tuscaloosa.
“We’re taking this program places where it’s never been before,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t have taken this job if we couldn’t make the Final Four.”
Enthusiasm is one thing, but reality is another. Alabama is historically one of the SEC’s better programs; it’s second to Kentucky in all-time SEC wins (757) and SEC win percentage (.567). But that success largely came before the modern era, where Alabama hasn’t won an SEC title since 2002 or an SEC tournament championship since 1991.
Johnson, who agreed to a six-year, $18 million deal, hopes to inject life into the program while also proving himself as a college coach. He earned NBA Coach of the Year in 2006 after leading the Mavericks to the NBA Finals. He won at least 50 games in each of his three full seasons in Dallas. But there’s no guarantee that success can translate into the NCAA. Moreover, Johnson comes to the SEC with the league seemingly on the rise. Other new coaches like Ben Howland at Mississippi State and Rick Barnes at Tennessee have raised the conference’s profile this off-season.
Before long, Johnson will hit the recruiting trail for the first time in his career. On Wednesday, Johnson recalled memories from the recruitment of his son, Avery Jr., a rising sophomore guard at Texas A&M. The coach didn’t pretend to be a recruiting expert, but he argued that his NBA career and ESPN experience could come in handy with his new job.
“’Hey, Coach Avery has never coached in college. How is he going to recruit?’” he said. “Here’s what I would say: When coach Avery Johnson walks into a recruit’s living room, they recognize coach Avery Johnson on some level.”
After Alabama’s open courtship of Gregg Marshall, Johnson hardly looks like a home-run hire. His arrival does not make the Tide an instant contender next season. But Johnson should bring a renewed level of excitement to Tuscaloosa. Alabama needed a marketable personality in Coleman Coliseum. It’s too early to tell whether Johnson can win in the SEC—he needs to prove he can recruit first—but he might just lure football fans at ‘Bama to the hardwood. That’s the first step of many in reviving this program.
Johnson said he’s ready to roll his sleeves up and get to work. He even told fans they won’t have to wait long to see a winner at Alabama.
“Even though Coach Battle blessed me with a six-year contract,” Johnson said, “it’s not going to take that long.”