New Alabama coach Avery Johnson sits down for a wide-ranging Q&A in which he explains why he took the job with the Crimson Tide, how he plans to turn Alabama into a national contender, his relationship with Nick Saban and why the future is bright for SEC basketball.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala.—Avery Johnson might’ve seemed like an unusual fit at Alabama, but he looked right at home last week while fielding questions from a visitor in his second-floor office at Coleman Coliseum. Johnson, who was introduced on April 8 as the Crimson Tide’s new head coach, sips a drink from a disposable cup while wearing a crimson workout shirt and grey sweatpants.
In 2006, Johnson took the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA Finals. Now he is tasked with returning Alabama to prominence in the SEC. SI.com sat down with Johnson to discuss his new job, coaching against his son, the shadow of Nick Saban and more.
SI: What have the last couple weeks been like for you?
Avery Johnson: It has been a whirlwind, but my family and I have been embraced by the University of Alabama fans, community, alumni, students, administration. We’ve been welcomed with open arms. It’s been pretty delightful. Yeah, it’s been pretty nonstop, but it’s nothing that we can’t manage.
It’s all about organization. The most stressful part has been trying to put together a coaching staff. The rest is basketball, giving speeches, meeting with different support groups, going on caravans with Coach Saban. All that stuff is like riding a bike. But putting together a staff, we want to put together the right group around our players, so that’s been the most challenging.
SI: What were your immediate priorities when you arrived?
AJ: Priority No. 1 was getting with the current players, meeting with them individually. Just sharing with them how, even though I’m coming in as a new coach, for those who want to stay, I’m going to do the best of my ability to help them grow and develop as a student and as an athlete. That was my first priority, getting to the players.
From there it’s obviously recruiting. We had a kid decommit, so we wanted to try to get him to recommit. Then we jumped on the rest of this 2015 class that we were playing catch-up with, but we also started to plant some seeds for 2016 and 2017. That meant getting to the high school coaches, AAU coaches, having as many visits as we could, within the rules. That’s pretty much been our priority.
SI: Have you had a lot of interaction with the state’s high school coaches thus far?
AJ: The great thing about it is, it’s not even just me reaching out to them, it’s them reaching out to me. The high school and AAU coaches, they want to know if they send their student-athlete to the University of Alabama, they’re going to be working with a coach and institution that they trust. It’s just about building relationships.
I knew a lot of the AAU guys because my son, [Texas A&M freshman] Avery Jr., played on it for several years. So it’s more about introducing myself not as the father of Avery Jr., but as the basketball coach of the University of Alabama.
SI: Most people know you as an NBA coach and former NBA player. What was the process like of deciding to come to college, specifically to Alabama? Was it a difficult choice?
AJ: It was an easy choice. I’ve always thought about coaching in college. The key was, when I first met with [Alabama athletic director] Coach [Bill] Battle, he pretty much, in a crystal-clear manner, explained how the opportunities here were just vast and endless, to do something this university’s never done. They were going to provide all the resources for staffing—whatever we needed, it would improve whatever areas we need to improve on to make it more like an NBA-run basketball program than a college-run program. For the most part, everything we’ve agreed upon, he’s come through. He’s been consistent and the administration’s been consistent. Every day I wake up, I’m as excited as I’ve ever been that I’ve taken this job and convinced this was the right thing to do.
SI: You were at ESPN before landing this job. Did you have any other recent opportunities to coach, in the NBA or college?
AJ: We were in the midst of signing a multi-year contract with ESPN [before taking the Alabama job]. We were engaged with them for a couple of months. In their case, they just wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to go back to coach. But hats off to ESPN, they treated me like royalty, like they do all of their employees. That was an option.
And obviously there were options to potentially return to the NBA as a head coach. We knew that we’d be on some teams lists, we knew we’d be a high priority in terms of an interview situation. And in light of some of the recent firings in the NBA, all of those situations would’ve been a possibility.
But I don’t have any second thoughts about it. If somebody were to call and say, “Hey, you’ve been at Alabama for two weeks, are you sure you want to do it? We’ll give you three times as much as you’re making at Alabama.” The answer would be, “No, I’m staying here.”
SI: All of your coaching experience has come at the NBA level, with the Mavericks and the Nets. But you’ve said that you’ve been intrigued by the option of coaching at the college level. When did you first develop that itch?
AJ: I think it all started when I got fired form the Nets [in 2012]. I had a chance to work with my son’s AAU team more as a consultant. I would put those kids through practice. These are high-level kids, top 100 recruits, and you know their names. So to have a chance to work with them and have a chance to grow and develop them was good.
Then the itch really became more pronounced when I was watching my son’s team [this past] year, and I’m at all of those college games at home and on the road. I’m thinking, man, this is something that I really want to do if the right opportunity presents itself. I probably wasn’t going to be the right fit for one of the smaller schools, but when the University of Alabama calls? With all of their vast achievements in the past, when Coach Wimp Sanderson was here, and Mark Gottfried, to get them back on that level and take it a step further? And to build on the foundation that Coach [Anthony] Grant built here? That was something that was very attractive.
SI: Was the recruitment of your son really your first taste of today’s recruiting trail?
AJ: Absolutely. A lot of the coaches laugh because, a lot of the teams that were recruiting my son, I probably talked to 25 or 30 coaches. Now when I go to an AAU tournament to recruit, we’re laughing about a couple of things, my conversations with them over that year about my son, and now me taking over this job. I had a chance to see recruiting first-hand. I’d gone on a recruiting trip to A&M as a parent. I know what the message was to us from their coach and administration, with the academic tour. Now I’m on the other side.
SI: And now you’ll be traveling to Texas A&M as an opponent.
SI: How will the Johnson household handle that matchup?
AJ: [laughs] That’s something that hasn’t been brought up yet. But that may be the first time that my wife’s allegiances are divided.
SI: A lot of folks wondered how your career would translate to college, specifically as a recruiter. How would you answer those critics?
AJ: You look at any coach that’s successful on the college level, he had to answer that question at one time. I think he answered it by trying to convince the parents that he’s going to be a man of character, compassion, a good teacher and role model, a father figure. Their son’s going to get the best education possible, and he’s going to develop and maximize his skills on the floor.
My NBA resume, I’m hoping, will be of some benefit, also. A lot of the kids now, everybody thinks they’re an NBA player. So if you think you’re an NBA player, why not give a shot to a guy that’s been on the NBA level for 20-plus years of his career as a player and a coach?
I also tell them, if you’re an athlete, I’ve already developed a child that’s playing in the SEC. I’ve got that part covered. If you’re a student, I have a daughter that’s about to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, so I understand the academic component. We have the student side and the athlete side in my home, and my wife and I have done a great job with both of them. I just think it’s the whole package, we just need a couple of blue-chip kids to say yes, and hopefully others will follow.
SI: I would think your presence on ESPN couldn’t hurt as a recruiter, either.
AJ: Oh absolutely, that’s a whole other deal. Like I’ve said, the parents and kids recognize me on some level. A lot of the parents or kids say, “Hey coach, I’ve seen you on TV, I’ve been following you, I like your commentary.” So they can identify with me on some level.
SI: You mentioned earlier having to re-commit one of your recruits. That was 6"5" guard Dazon Ingram, Alabama’s Mr. Basketball, who signed with you guys after having opened up his recruitment. That speaks to your pledge of building a fence around the state. Why is that important?
AJ: It’s huge. A lot of the elite players have gone outside of the state to play at other schools, even in our conference. To get back in play where a lot of those guys have told us no, now they’re telling us maybe, and hopefully we can get them on campus. That’s a huge part of our development here in terms of taking incremental steps in our recruiting. You’ve got to be in play in the backyards of the best players in Alabama to have success.
But the message I also want to send is, we love the kids in Alabama. There are some very talented kids. But we can’t be limited to Alabama. Yesterday I was in Texas. We have a strong presence in Texas. I just hired Coach Bob Simon [as associate head coach], and he has a strong presence in other areas that I don’t want to give away. Assistant coach Antoine Pettway has a strength with his recruitment style. Everything’s on the table, and wherever the elite programs are recruiting, we want to be there also.
SI: You said you wouldn’t have taken this job if you didn’t think Alabama could reach a Final Four. No Crimson Tide team has ever gone that far, and only one, in 2004, have they reached the Elite Eight. What did you see that makes this a Final Four-caliber program?
AJ: Again, I just think the talent in the state is critical. But also the willingness of the administration to improve all areas of basketball operations. Everything’s on the table. Everything. Their willingness to say, “We will go there, coach.” If it costs more money, if we need more donors, if we need more support staff. Whether it’s a better airplane, whatever it is. The administration is saying, we want to play where the big boys are playing. To do, that you have to step up. From the president to the athletic director on down, everybody’s willing to step up.
I met with our medical team. There are areas we’ve discussed that I’ve seen work on the NBA level, and they’re willing to adopt those here at Alabama. In the strength and conditioning program, most NBA teams have a strength and conditioning coach and an assistant. We don’t have an assistant. So my point is, the overall program is under review. We want to improve the product internally and externally.
SI: In the NBA, you had to coach a lot of egos. Every roster has players who were stars in college. How do you coach differently with 18-to-22 year olds?
AJ: The University of Alabama hired me to be myself. Whatever I am, that’s what they want. They want the whole package. The way I was in Dallas or with the Nets, that’s what they want. The way I played as player, that’s what they want. I’ve got to be myself. The college game is a lot slower. Obviously the NBA game is a lot faster. We hope to play a little faster than we have in the past.
SI: That brings up an interesting point. There’s been a lot of criticism of the college game in recent months, from its low scoring to its slow pace. What do you see in the college game, and what’s the answer to fixing it?
AJ: It is what it is. For me, I’m always about finding solutions. Rather than worry about the college game as a whole, I worry about whether we can score. Can we shoot? Can we make threes? Can we space the floor? Can we set a pick? I can draw up the cutest play in the world, but can we make a pass?
We don’t have culture here. There’s no environment. I’m trying to create it all. With the football team, Coach Saban’s done an incredible job. As he says, they’re trying to get their mojo back. We have no mojo to get back. So we’re in the development phase.
SI: Speaking of Saban, you went to Alabama’s spring game last week. Was that your first time inside Bryant-Denny Stadium?
AJ: It wasn’t my first time in the stadium, but it was the first since I’ve been here.
SI: Pretty much every SEC basketball program sits in the shadow of a football team, with the exception of Kentucky. How do you balance that? Did Coach Saban offer any advice?
AJ: The funny thing is, when I got the call from Coach Battle, and he wanted to come interview me, that was a big part of our conversation. I said if I became the coach at Alabama, the first thing I wanted to do when I arrived on campus was meet Coach Saban. I needed 20 or 30 minutes with Coach Saban. It had to happen. I respect him, he’s a future Hall-of-Famer, a model of consistency. And where I am at this stage, 50 years old, that’s where Coach Saban was 10 years ago when he came from the Miami Dolphins. I wanted to pick his brain about a couple of things.
I also wanted to share with him that I want to become his partner, in terms of not having basketball so much in the shadow of football. Let’s see how we can walk side by side. I told him he can call me morning, noon and night, if he wants to meet and talk leadership management. If there’s something that he sees on the court, even though he’s not a basketball guy, whatever it is. I respect him that much. We’ve gotten off to a good start, and it’s going to continue.
We’re not necessarily trying to be in the shadows of football. We want to partner with them. If we can have success in basketball and football, it’s better for the university.
SI: Did he tell you where to buy one of those pink blazers, like he wore in the spring game?
AJ: [laughs] I have one! I have one now.
SI: Your closet probably has a lot more crimson in there now, too.
AJ: Oh, yes it does.
SI: What is your take on SEC basketball as a whole? The league has had a good offseason with the hiring of you, Rick Barnes at Tennessee and Ben Howland at Mississippi State. Plus Kentucky is always Kentucky, and a number of other teams seem to be on the rise.
AJ: I think it’s very healthy. Again, that’s another reason why I wanted to come. The league has so many great coaches. And coaches are competitive. I respect all of those guys, although they’ve obviously been coaching in college longer than I have. I’ve been watching Coach Barnes in Texas for years because I lived there. Coach Howland and I, we have the same agent. Same thing with Mark Fox at Georgia. Obviously Billy Kennedy and I have a relationship at A&M. [LSU's] Johnny Jones and I have been friends for 30 years. As much as we want our players to get after it, it’s going to be fun competing against all those guys.
SI: You’ve said one of your primary goals is to create a culture and atmosphere around basketball and bring fans into this building. How do you do that?
AJ: It’s important, getting them in the building and giving them a great experience. We have to recreate a winning atmosphere in this building. They’ve had it before. We have to recreate it.
When I met with those folks, especially before the press conference, there was an energy and an anticipation in the building that I’ve seen before. I saw it when I was hired with the Mavericks. In my time there, they had great ownership and a terrific general manager. [Mavericks owner] Mark [Cuban], back when he bought the Mavericks, he recreated and created, and that’s what we’re trying to do where.
SI: You could try getting Cuban down here on sideline, then.
AJ: (laughs) We already have an alum that I call Baby Mark Cuban. And he’s flattered by it too. I don’t know the gentleman’s name, but he likes to have fun with the referees.
SI: You’ve spoken to Auburn coach Bruce Pearl about cultivating basketball’s version of the Iron Bowl. What was that conversation like?
AJ: We ran into each other in New Orleans. We were just saying, the better the rivalry is, the better it is not only for the state, but for SEC basketball. We’re at two supposedly football schools. Not that he’s pulling for us to win, or vice versa, it’s just that we both want to be good. I think that rivalry would be good.