PRINCETON: Johnson heading on climb

Column: Justin Time

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
   Sydney Johnson’s departure to Fairfield University may have caught many in the Princeton University basketball community by surprise, but his timing is perfect — for him.
   Johnson is on the way up the coaching ladder, and staying at Princeton was a gamble that could have cost him a chance to ascend to a big-conference school and a really big payoff.
   The surprise in Johnson’s departure had two layers to it. There was surprise that he left so early and there was surprise that he was going to Fairfield, and not, for instance, North Carolina State, Missouri, or even UNLV, schools that are bigger than Princeton or play in bigger name conferences.
   There are perfectly good reasons for Johnson to leave now, but the best reason is that he may not be as hot a prospect in a couple of years if he stays at Princeton. The Tigers lose two huge playmakers in Dan Mavraides and Kareem Maddox to graduation. When Princeton needed a basket, so often it was one of the two that delivered it, right up until the Ivy playoff when they turned to Doug Davis for the game-winner.
   Davis and his clutch play will return, but picture the Tigers without Mavraides and Maddox, and compare it to a Harvard squad that returns its entire team and continues to bring in the sorts of studs that made Penn a thorn in Princeton’s side for years and helped Cornell turn around its team for its three-year Ivy title run.
   Winning an Ivy championship again next year will be, not impossible, but hard for Princeton, which had a bench that had more defensive than offensive talent to replace Mavraides and Maddox. Veteran teams and very talented teams win the Ivy League every year. The combination of talent and experience makes someone like Harvard a clear favorite for the foreseeable future.
   Johnson knows he can coach, but he must know that he might not have the talent to win the Ivy title next year or the year after it. There aren’t many big-time programs that come knocking on the door of runner-up mid-major or small-school programs. Craig Robinson, the Princeton graduate who helped build up the Brown program, is the exception, not the rule. His Brown team jumped from fifth to second in his only two years there, but never won the Ivy title. Still, Oregon State thought so much of his potential that it hired him away to rebuild their Pac-10 disaster, and Robinson jumped at the chance.
   That’s what coaches do if they get the chance. Chris Mooney, another Princeton graduate, helped Joe Scott build Air Force’s program. When Scott left, Mooney only served one year as Air Force head coach and they finished third. Given the chance, though, he jumped to Richmond in a bigger conference, and has lifted the Spiders to new highs while picking up a nice paycheck to boot.
   The days of Pete Carril, who stayed for almost 30 years at Princeton, are gone. Princeton doesn’t pay the salary, has tougher admission standards than most and doesn’t have more than its Cinderella profile and potential to keep today’s coaches for a long time.
   The lineup of coaches that left before Johnson all had different ties to Princeton and different reasons for leaving. Bill Carmody left Princeton after an incredible season. Carmody was a long-time assistant, but wasn’t otherwise connected to Princeton. He left for Northwestern, a bigger school in one of the biggest conferences in the country.
   It’s hard to argue with his move. He’s survived for 11 seasons on the same sort of deal that Andy Reid has with the Philadelphia Eagles that doesn’t require him to win big, just be better than what they had before. Carmody has been in charge at Northwestern for 11 seasons now, and the Wildcats have made the postseason, but not the NCAA tournament, which is usually the judge of big-conference success.
   It would have been difficult for anyone to follow Carmody’s success, which is why John Thompson III probably should have been snatched up immediately after winning an Ivy crown in his first season with a pretty bare cupboard. Thompson III has been terrific at Georgetown, resurrecting a program from rubble. He was a Princeton man, who like Johnson played for and met his wife at Princeton. He left Princeton for blood, going to the Georgetown program that he’d seen his father build into a national power. It’s hard to speculate if he would have gone elsewhere as it seemed such a sensible move.
   Johnson’s predecessor, Joe Scott, left for Denver when patience was wearing thin at Princeton as losing, not winning, came to the former National Coach of the Year. Scott has been working to build up Denver, though it hasn’t gone as quickly as it did at Air Force.
   When Johnson took over for Scott, after a tough first year, there was little place to go but up, and Johnson did his job in turning around the Tigers. In doing so, he displayed uncommon passion for his team and what the job meant to him, which is another factor in why it’s so curious that he left as soon as he could. He had to if he’s staying on the fast track to a big-name school.
   It may look like a lateral move for Johnson to head to Fairfield. Fairfield plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which ranked the same or slightly worse than the Ivy League in the two most popular ratings systems. But Johnson has a young family and will make more money — plenty of spots report him to be making roughly double what he did at Princeton — and not face some of the recruiting strains that make any Ivy job a challenge.
   Johnson wasn’t merrily jumping ship. He isn’t interested in a rebuilding project like Colgate, a good academic school that also offers athletic scholarships now but plays in a weaker conference. He’s going to a place where he can win and win big, then he can take on a rebuilding project in a bigger conference.
   At Fairfield, Johnson has a team that returns four starters from a 25-win squad that last year captured the regular-season title. He will be competing against the likes of Canisius, Iona, Loyola, Manhattan, Marist, Niagara, Rider, Saint Peter’s and Siena, none of which are world beaters.
   Johnson should win. All the pieces are in place for a big season that keeps Johnson high on the list of hot coaches. From there, where is the biggest question? Can he parlay success into a Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart-like $1.2 million per year payout, or does Johnson have designs on making Fairfield the Butler or Gonzaga of the Northeast? We will know soon enough because Sydney Johnson is a good coach and he’s going to win wherever he goes. Where that next stop is, is Fairfield’s concern now.