I want to talk a little bit about the hire, how we got here, my evaluation of the search process, and the next steps I think we need to take going forward, but first, I would like to revisit what I posted in the wake of Coach Anthony Grant's firing regarding the qualifications the new coach should possess:
"First, it should go without saying, but I want someone who will represent the University in a first class manner. This was Coach Grant's strong suit, and this isn't about trading that for wins. We can win with class. Second, he needs to have a lot of "up side." If we can't conceivably picture the guy taking us to a final four at some point, I don't want him. Familiarity with the region and experience recruiting the south are a plus, but I would also be open to a great recruiter with connections to a more fertile prospect base. Finally, I want someone who understands the importance of being an ambassador to the program and actively marketing it to the Tuscaloosa and Birmingham communities. "
Is there any doubt after the opening press conference and learning about Coach AJ's background that he passes all of that with flying colors?
It is true that he has no college coaching experience, and this is still a gamble, like any coaching hire. It's possible that he will be completely lost when it comes to recruiting, scheduling, and coaching the college game. It's also possible, and I think more likely, that his name recognition, relentless marketing, and basketball knowledge will have us legitimately competing with Kentucky for SEC and National championships within the next 4-5 years.
Coach Johnson has literally done more in 6 hours today to market, sell, and promote the basketball program than has been done in the last 10 years. To say he owned the press conference would be an understatement. Following that, he's done at least 4 radio interviews that I know of today, and has scheduled other national appearances this week. Whereas others speculated that a good coach wouldn't want to come to a "football school," coach Johnson recognizes the attention the football team receives here, so he goes and speaks to the football team at practice on his first day.
In many ways he's the perfect fit for us. Us die hard Alabama basketball fans have long been told to accept our position as an after-thought to football. That we will never be a final four team, we are merely a distraction between the bowl game and signing day. Unfortunately, those sentiments come from a lot of people who claim to be supporters of the University. Kentucky looks down their noses at us and the rest of the conference. We've had our moments, though. Despite the apathy, we've had some good runs and we all know that the potential is there to be great. Coach Johnson was a short point guard who was undrafted out of Southern University. He didn't care what others perceived to be his glass ceiling, he ended up hitting the game winning shot to win a World Championship against the Knicks then went on to win NBA coach of the year taking the Mavs to the finals. He knows what it takes, and he can get us there.
HOW WE GOT HERE
The end result is all that matters, so I give Coach Battle credit for landing a coach that we are all excited about. That being said, I don't think this process was handled in the most efficient way. A lot of this is based on rumors and reading between the lines, but here's my best guess on the unfolding of events:
Bill Battle originally planned to give Coach Grant another year, most likely because he didn't want deal with a coaching search when he plans to be gone soon. Word leaked about this and the overwhelming email campaign led him to do a 180 and fire Coach Grant. The problem is, now we have no coach and no real plan in place to find a replacement. Further, he failed to contemplate that we could be an NIT team, and the NIT selected us before they realized we didn't have a coach. Gregg Marshall was a natural first choice, given his success and Wichita State being, well Wichita State.
I did not agree with making the push for Marshall so public, but in retrospect it may have played a significant role in attracting Coach Johnson, although I suspect word of our offer would have circulated amongst the coaching community and eventually to Coach AJ anyway. Obviously Battle flew to Wichita and met for hours with Coach Marshall, but I think he made a mistake by leaving without either getting a firm "no" or having the Marshall's in tow. Marshall gave indications that he was highly interested, mostly due to the amount of $$ we were throwing at him, and called over the next several days with additional questions/demands, that were mostly agreed to. However, by leaving without giving him a firm deadline, Marshall was left to ponder the decision in a place where everyone wants him to stay, and it probably would have required bringing the family kicking and screaming. Meanwhile the Koch brothers ponied up and WSU was able to raise his salary to a competitive level, and that was that.
Again, we seemingly had no plan B. Several other good candidates were already off the table, Howland at MSU, Barnes to UT, Smart was closing in on Texas. We seemingly went straight to plan C, some of the names I was hearing, in addition to the Steve Prohm and Mike White types, were not very appealing at all. Thankfully, Coach Johnson saved us and got word to Battle that he may be interested. We came to an agreement Sunday afternoon, but for some reason delayed announcing it until during the championship game Monday night. We should have announced it at a time when it would generate more press and interest.
TH PRESS CONFERENCE
If you haven't watched it yet, do yourself a favor. He did a fantastic job of selling himself and the University. It was like he was directly speaking to recruits and potential fans alike. A few of the highlights:
He gave credit to his coach at Southern, who pushed him to get his degree and actually discouraged him from thinking about the NBA until after he graduated.
He wants to build a fence around Alabama but will also pursue top recruits elsewhere. He made sure to drop plenty of names including NBA connections and AAU coaches. He mentioned AAU at least 10 times. It left me with the impression that he has a much better handle on what college recruiting is all about than many of us want to give him credit for.
He really talked up the University and the athletic department. "When Alabama calls, you pick up the phone!"
He talked about how community involvement is of utmost importance. He said we are going to build a great atmosphere in Coleman Coliseum. He is going to get to work immediately.
He answered questions about his lack of experience, "You want to go to the NBA? I'm your guy." citing his NBA career and connections. "You want to play 4 years and get a degree? I'm your guy." Citing his daughter who is apparently a double-major genius at Penn University.
He said when Pop took over in San Antonio, he said "we want to play defense like bad boy Pistons, and offense like the Chicago Bulls." That's what we want here, and Duke is the standard.
He said he wouldn't have taken this job if he didn't think we could win championships here. It's not about just making the tournament or going to the sweet 16 or elite 8. As the title of his book says, "Aspire Higher."
"I was blessed with a six year contract, but it's not going to take us that long."
He will be friendly to the media, and we've already seen that. His media connections and availability are going to be huge assets for us.
"Buckle your seat belts, this program is going places we've never gone before."
This is a great start, but we still have a long way to go, so how do we get there? It's not enough to just hire an intriguing coach and tell him to work his magic and hope for the best. We've got to change the culture of basketball here. By "here" I mean not only the UA program but in the state. That's not an easy task, but it can be done.
For starters, Coach AJ needs to be given everything he needs to do the job. All of those promises that were supposedly made to Gregg Marshall? Coach AJ should get the same things, if not more. We need to provide him with a sufficient budget to get a great staff in place. I would prefer an assistant coach who has previous college head coaching experience. We need someone who can help him early on with things like scheduling, NCAA compliance, etc. Obviously recruiting is paramount. I sense he is looking to get a mix of one and done types along with some 4 year players. If we can start attracting one and done type talent here, look out! We also need to recruit the current players to come back, although I don't put as much of a priority on this as some others do. Players get attached to their coaches, and while I think we have a great group of athletes, if they don't want to play for Coach AJ I would just as soon go short-handed and take our lumps until we can get some guys who will fully buy in.
You all know I've been harping on the marketing aspect here for years. Coach AJ will go a long way towards solving that himself, but he's still going to need the support of the administration. We need to figure out a way to a) Get more students to the game, and b) get them closer to the court. Then hopefully we can get some of those people who've been buying season tickets for years but never using them to actually show up.
In my ideal world, I would like to see us break ground on a new arena within the next 5 years. I recognize that's probably a bit ambitious, but if we can start showing signs of turning things around in the next couple of years, why not?
The poster Finebammer and I don't agree on much. In fact, we seem to have polar opposite worldviews, and that's fine, the world would be pretty boring if we all thought the same way. That being said, I want to give him credit for being the first to advocate for Coach Johnson here. I dismissed it as "somewhat intriguing, but no college experience and doubt he would even be interested." I know we also agree on the need to change the culture here with support from the administration. It's anecdotal evidence, but when Finebammer and I can agree on multiple issues, that's a sign the UA basketball fanbase may be more united than ever.
Now, let's go get some assistant coaches and some recruits!