(Photo by Stephen Goldsmith)
HAPPY HOMECOMING: Sydney Johnson smiles as he answers a question last Monday at the press conference introducing him as the new head coach of the Princeton University men's basketball team. Johnson, a 1997 Princeton alum and one of the top players in the program's storied history, said he is excited by the challenge of getting the Tigers back on the winning track. Over the last three seasons, Johnson was an assistant coach at Georgetown under fellow Princeton alum John Thompson III. He culminated his tenure there by helping the Hoyas advance to the NCAA Final Four this past March. The Tigers, meanwhile, went 11-17 overall in 2006-07, plummeting to the program's first-ever last place finish in the Ivies with a 2-12 league mark.

Preaching Forward-Thinking and Hard Work, Johnson Takes Helm of Tiger Men's Hoops

Bill Alden

Wearing a sharp black suit with an orange tie, Sydney Johnson looked the part in being introduced as the new head coach of the Princeton University men's basketball team last Monday."

Johnson, a 1997 Princeton graduate, has orange and black running in his veins, having been a standout player for the Tigers, scoring 1,044 points in his career and setting a program record with 169 career steals. He is the only three-time team captain in program history and helped Princeton win two Ivy League titles during his career.

Sparked by Johnson's leadership and skill, Princeton pulled off two of the sweetest wins in program history, the overtime victory against Penn in the 1996 Ivy playoff game followed days later by the titanic upset of defending national champion UCLA in the NCAA Tournament."

After Princeton, Johnson played seven seasons in pro ball, leading his team to three league titles. Since 2004, he has been an assistant coach at Georgetown under former Princeton head coach John Thompson III. He culminated his tenure there by helping the Hoyas advance to the NCAA Final Four this past March."

For Johnson, coming home to Princeton was an early birthday present just days before he turns 33 this Thursday. "I'm very happy to be back at Princeton, it's a very special place to me," said Johnson, who was the Ivy League Player of the Year in 1997 and ranks fifth all-time in Princeton in three-pointers (162) and assists (280)."

"My experience here will help me relate to what the young men are going through up the hill in the classroom. I have walked the walk."

Johnson faces a tough road in restoring Princeton to its past glory as he replaces the departed Joe Scott, who headed west this March to become the head coach at the University of Denver. Princeton went 11-17 overall in 2006-07, plummeting to its first-ever last place finish in the Ivies with a 2-12 league mark."

"It's a challenge," said Johnson, noting that current Princeton assistant Tony Newsom will stay on as his No. 1 assistant. "I feel very comfortable here and I want to achieve the same things we all want to achieve. Pressure comes partly from being unprepared and I don't see myself that way. I'm pretty prepared. I want to work. I want to be here and give everything I have to make this the right fit."

Johnson's approach to his work will be influenced by his three years playing for legendary Princeton head coach Pete Carril as well as his time working with Thompson. "

"He [Carril] really sees things to the smallest detail and John [Thompson] is the same way," said Johnson, who spoke in a measured cadence similar to his mentor Thompson."

"You keep your eyes and ears open, be listening and learning what's going on. I've learned a tremendous amount from John Thompson III and how he carries himself and the relationship he has with players. I'm humbled by his grace and integrity. It's important that your players believe in you and that they trust you. The X's and O's are important and I don't want to minimize that. I want to earn the players' trust."

Princeton Director of Athletics Gary Walters trusts that he has found the right man in Johnson. "People ask why Sydney," said Walters, fondly recalling that Johnson made the pivotal plays in overtime in the classic win over Penn in the 1996 Ivy playoff. "I think the answers to that are transparent to anyone who has read his distinguished biography. He has personal qualities and leadership ability."

Although Princeton has posted losing seasons the last two years, Johnson is excited about the players he has to lead. "I love our players," said Johnson. "I love what we have in the locker room. It's a good bunch of guys. We haven't gotten to work yet. Today is the first day. I want to work with our guys. we have workouts scheduled for today and I can't wait to work with the guys."

Rising Princeton senior forward Noah Savage said he and his teammates are fired up to work with their new coach. "He is the kind of guy everybody looks up to," said Savage. "We were excited to hear that he got the job. He is so young, we can relate to him. We want to do the things that he did."

Based on the first workout, Savage believes that Johnson will be a player-friendly coach. "I think he will allow the players to take more control of their destiny," added Savage, a former Hun School star who was a starter in in his first two seasons at Princeton before coming off the bench as a junior."

"The players will have more of a leadership role. He told us that he's trying to do everything to help us to do our best. We want to do well and do everything that we can do to get better We need to give our best for him to justify having that freedom."

Calling himself a "forward-thinker," Johnson said he will emphasize the importance of making the most out of every day. "I'm a big picture person," asserted Johnson."

"My 'big picture' is how we approach every single day. I think highly of this university and this program. I want to impress upon our young men about that program and the great tradition here and how we'll work hard every single day as a group. I want tomorrow to be better than today."

As the press conference wrapped up, Johnson was anxious to get that process underway. "I really love coaching; I really love the connection with the players," added Johnson."

"I'm really, really desperate to establish that bond with our young men here. I think we can establish something special if we have that connection. I want to get out there and work and sacrifice myself. I want to see the players sacrificing for each other; good results will follow from that."

And if Johnson can achieve those good results, he can restore the winning tradition of the program he loves so much."

Return to Top | Go to Next Sports Story