Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 15
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
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DEPARTING THOUGHTS: Princeton University men’s basketball head coach Sydney Johnson gestures to his players during the Tigers’ 59-57 loss last month to Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The game turned out to be Johnson’s last one at the helm of the program as he resigned last week to take over the Fairfield University men’s hoops team. Johnson’s sudden exit in the wake of a 25-7 season left many in Princeton basketball nation perplexed.

Johnson’s Sudden Exit From Tiger Men’s Hoops Has Left Followers of Storied Program Perplexed

Bill Alden

It was the hot topic last week whenever any members of the Princeton University men’s basketball nation crossed paths.

Why did Princeton head coach Sydney Johnson suddenly leave his beloved alma mater to take over the Fairfield University program?

Johnson’s exit, which came days after the end of an inspiring 25-7 campaign that saw the 1997 Princeton alum shedding tears in appreciation of his team’s effort in a 59-57 defeat to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament, left his players at a loss.

“I think he loves Princeton basketball,” forward and co-captain Kareem Maddox told the Daily Princetonian as quoted in its April 4 issue. “Some people may not understand the move, but what I’ll say is that he came, and he got a lot out of Princeton.”

Fellow senior star Dan Mavraides expressed similar sentiments to the Prince. “The team is going to miss him a lot,” added Mavraides of Johnson, who guided the Tigers to a 66-53 record in his four seasons at the helm.

“He was a great coach who did a lot for this program. [His tenure was] rather short-lived, but he made a huge impact on this program in merely four years.”

Speculation abounded as to what prompted Johnson’s startling departure. In his New Jersey Hoops Haven blog, veteran reporter Jerry Carino pointed to three main reasons for Johnson’s flight.

Carino cited a potential major pay raise (claiming Johnson was making in the low-to-mid $200,000s at Princeton and former Fairfield coach Ed Cooley was making in the $400,000 range), the healthy state of the Fairfield program (coming off a 25-8 season with most of its players slated to return), and tough competition from rising Ivy power Harvard (rumored to have taken steps to get more basketball recruits in the fold).

Former Princeton hoops star Noah Savage, who played in Johnson’s first year at the helm and has been part of the program’s radio broadcasting crew the last two winters, saw Johnson’s move as inevitable.

“I didn’t think he would stay at Princeton for 25 years; I honestly expected four or five years once I saw the track he was on,” said Savage, a former Hun School standout who was a Tiger co-captain and second-team All-Ivy pick as a senior in the 2007-08 season which marked Johnson’s head coaching debut. “He is a great coach who was going to be a shooting star.”

Savage was surprised that Fairfield was Johnson’s next stop on the coaching ladder.

“I thought he might go to a school in a power conference which is how young coaches like Brad Stevens (Butler) and Shaka Smart (VCU) have done,” said Savage, noting Johnson’s desire to compete at the highest level and that such schools as Missouri, N.C. State, and Georgia Tech were recently in the market for coaches. “I thought it was not wildly out of the question that a power conference might bring him in.”

Even though Princeton went 6-23 in Johnson’s debut campaign, Savage and his fellow seniors had the sense that the young coach would quickly bring Princeton back to the top of the Ivy heap.

“Without a doubt we saw it, once he got more talent and the players adjusted to him, we knew Princeton would be winning again,” said Savage, who noted that the players initially had trouble adjusting from the “super-precise” style of previous head coach Joe Scott to Johnson’s more freewheeling approach. “We lost a lot of close games that year; this season, they won all the close games.”

In Savage’s view, Johnson has proven himself to be a keen strategist. “He is a great scouting report coach; he breaks down what the other team is doing but he also makes sure his team plays to its strengths,” explained Savage.

“If Kareem [Maddox] is good inside, he makes sure we run some stuff inside. If [Dan] Mavraides needs to make threes, we get him some perimeter shots. I saw him out-coach other teams; Princeton was more prepared and had a better scouting report. They consistently made the best player on the other team play the worst.”

Johnson also displayed strong motivational skills. “He had so much to do with success in the last two years; getting them to believe they can do this,” asserted Savage.

“He had to get the kids to believe they can be good in the league and then get them to believe they can get close to title and then when they get close, you have to get them to believe they can win it. He was getting the most out of the talent he had. I think he did one of the best coaching jobs in the country this season; it is tough to do a better job. He had the second most wins in program history.”

In Johnson’s view, the Fairfield program is a good fit for his coaching style and values.

“We had breakfast on my first visit to the campus and I am not exaggerating with you but within the first 45 minutes of the breakfast I bought in,” said Johnson at his introductory press conference at Fairfield last Wednesday.

“In terms of what Father von Arx [Fairfield president] was talking about, in terms of the connection that I had made with Gene Doris [Fairfield Director of Athletics] over the phone and then Mark Reed [Fairfield Vice President of Administration and Student Affairs] in terms of how it was clear to me how he was executing Father’s vision, you know when you buy into something and you can see a tie to it deeply, it makes it easier. So it’s not that I’m not going to miss my guys [from Princeton], immensely, especially those 16 from this past year. But I really bought in very, very early in the process as it relates to Fairfield, and that helps me deal with those emotions.”

That vision includes building on the kind of success that Johnson experienced this past winter at Princeton.

“They’ve had a terrific season just passed and several before that and we aim to have great seasons in the very near future,” added Johnson at the press conference.

“I have come to guide these young men. We are playing for championships. We want to be on national TV and win basketball games on television. We want to play in the NCAA Tournament and win games in the NCAA Tournament. We’re not going to run and hide from that. We are going to state that boldly. That is our goal and we’re going to put every ounce of what we have into doing that.”

Princeton Director of Athletics Gary Walters vowed to put a big effort into finding a successor who can continue Princeton’s run of hoops success.

“Princeton will immediately engage in conducting a national search for Sydney’s successor,” said Walters last week. “I am confident that we will be able to attract a coach who is worthy of this great university and of our great basketball program.”

While the search may be national, Johnson’s successor could well come from one of four Tiger alums: Mike Brennan ’94, a former assistant coach and a current assistant at Georgetown, Brian Earl ’99, an assistant on Johnson’s staff, Howard Levy ’85, a former Tiger assistant and current head coach at Mercer County Community College, and Mitch Henderson ’98, a longtime assistant at Northwestern under former Princeton coach Bill Carmody.

Any of those four would make sense in Savage’s view. “They would all be phenomenal choices,” said Savage. “I think they will be looking for continuity in some way and everyone of them comes from Coach [Pete] Carril.”

But having gone through four head coaches in the 15 seasons since Carril’s 29-year reign, the program could use a little more continuity from its next leader.

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