There have been moves and hires that have surprised me in the near decade that I've covered Virginia Tech athletics, yet yesterday's news of former Hokies men's basketball head coach James Johnson returning to VT as a Director of High School Relations for football may have topped the list.
Welcome back, @Coach_JJ_Fball 👋— Virginia Tech Football (@HokiesFB) May 9, 2023
James Johnson will return to Blacksburg as our Director of High School Relations!
📝: https://t.co/cbSSWImCB0#ThisIsHome pic.twitter.com/AoK3bBW2WH
I'd be lying if I didn't say that I clicked on the tweet multiple times along with clicking on the link to the "@HokiesFB" Twitter account to confirm that this indeed was accurate. I can't personally remember the last time I've seen a former men's basketball head coach return to that school to work in the football recruiting department (or vice versa with any other sports).
Of course, the move led to plenty of instant takes and opinions on Twitter from some calling it genius creativity and others calling it nonsensical overthinking. For me, there were a couple quick takeaways from this hire.
First, James Johnson has to be high up there on the list of people who love Virginia Tech and are loyal to the university. He's been around Blacksburg a decent amount over the past year and now has returned in a formal capacity in the VT Football recruiting department.
The bigger part is the fact that Johnson is working under the same athletic director in Whit Babcock who upon his arrival to Blacksburg, his first move was to fire him after only two seasons as the head coach to go get Buzz Williams. Now those two years went quite poorly, and it didn't seem insane to move on from Johnson after two years but for Johnson, you'd have to feel a little shortchanged given how most coaches even today get at least four years.
Imagine if you're James Johnson for a second. You got your dream job, but don't get the same amount of time that most people get to establish yourself in that job with new management coming in and dismissing you almost immediately. Then imagine coming back to work for that same management years later (albeit under a different direct boss underneath that overarching management) to a place where you don't have any reason for loyalty per say.
That's very rare and the fact that Johnson has basically done that says a lot about his love for Virginia Tech.
My other thought after this hire wasn't that this was good or bad but rather one of curious fascination. Johnson has never worked in football, but he isn't working in a football evaluation role and is known for the relationships he's built across the Mid-Atlantic. Yet outside of some high school athletic directors, most of those relationships are likely not directly applicable in this situation along with it being a different sport. Yet he's also still known for his ability to build relationship in a role where that is the primary focus even if he has a lot to build.
Also, Glenwood Ferebee is still in his role as a Director of High School Relations as well so having even more support staff is always going to be a positive in the modern staffing arm's race that college football has become.
As you can tell, there was clear fascination on my end with the hiring of Johnson and whether this actually makes sense or not. So what did I do? Well I reached out to some high school coaches across the Commonwealth of Virginia who offered to share their thoughts anonymously on the addition of Johnson to Tech's support staff.
They had a mixture of thoughts that were mostly defined by intrigue about the hire along with some advice on how Johnson can be most successful in his new role with VT Football.
"I've never met Coach (James) Johnson, but I think his experience in what it takes to recruit successfully will help when it comes to having positive relationships with the high school coaches, especially in-state," a Northern Virginia HS assistant said.
"I’m not too familiar with him, But in all things, if it’s someone that will concentrate on keeping the in-state talent at home, I think it will show as a good hire. In my opinion, the earlier a school starts a relationship with in-state guys, the less likely they will feel disrespected as they won’t feel VT waited for others to start recruiting them before they jumped on board," a Richmond area HS head coach said.
"I'm curious to how it would work. I know a position like that is successful through mostly relationship building. I'm not sure how good he is at that but as a former head coach, I'm sure he does have strategy for recruiting. I do think winning the 757 is important so hopefully we will be hearing a lot from him soon," a 757 HS assistant coach said.
As you can see, there is plenty of intrigue about this hire from coaches across the Commonwealth of Virginia. Of course, what still matters most at the end is whether Johnson will play a role in helping build those relationships further. Having Johnson as an addition to Glenwood Ferebee still being in his role should make this a net plus and allow each of them to be able to build stronger relationships in part due to Tech's ability to now split that pool of HS coaches between the two.
Fascination and curiosity still defines my view on this addition, but James Johnson's reputation for relationship building and experience in collegiate recruiting even if in a different sport should prove beneficial given what HS coaches in want to see in that role. Additionally, Tech having Glenwood Ferebee still leading the charge in that area with Johnson being an addition rather than a replacement gives Johnson's hiring a high floor with a higher ceiling.