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September 7, 2011
Johnson up for the challenge at Fairfield
Just five days earlier, Johnson had been on an emotional high after his Tigers defeated Harvard 63-62 in a one-game playoff for the Ivy League title. The victory gave the Tigers a bid to the NCAA tournament, culminating Johnson's rebuilding job at his alma mater.
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His ties with the school were deep. Johnson played at Princeton under Hall of Fame coach Pete Carril, was the Ivy League's player of the year for the Tigers and served as a Tigers assistant under John Thompson III. He even met his wife at Princeton.
In April, though, Johnson took to a podium as the new coach at Fairfield.
"It's really hard to start to your coaching career at a place you love so much because, inevitably, you're going to grow," said Johnson, who went 66-53 in four seasons at Princeton in his first head-coaching job. "You're going to want to take on new challenges. That's what made it hard."
After Thompson left for Georgetown, the Tigers had two losing records in three seasons under Joe Scott. Johnson was hired to pick up the pieces and went 6-23 in his first season. But the turned things around quickly, and when Princeton reached its 24th NCAA tournament last season, it broke a tie with Penn for the most tournament berths in league history.
While it's not surprising for a successful Ivy League coach to leave for another job, a move from an Ivy League school to a MAAC school is an unorthodox switch. Recent moves from the Ivy League have been for jobs at places such as Georgetown, Temple and Boston College.
Johnson's move may be puzzling, but it's not without reason. The move to Fairfield involves a pay raise and certainly more overall resources, not the least of which is scholarships to offer incoming players.
The academic rigors and admission standards always will be a challenge in the Ivy League, though Harvard has shown some wiggle room in admissions under Tommy Amaker. Princeton has not bent on admission standards, though Johnson has not said that was the reason for the move to Fairfield.
"Princeton as an institution and basketball program has a real feel for who they are," Johnson said.
The same thing is happening at Fairfield. Johnson had a rebuilding job at Princeton. That's not the case at Fairfield. Ed Cooley -- who left for the Providence job -- left the roster stocked at Fairfield. The Stags won the MAAC's regular-season title but were stunned by fourth-seeded St. Peter's in the semifinals of the conference tournament. The 48 victories over the past two seasons are the most in any two-year span in program history.
In two seasons at Houston, Desmond Wade was a classic pass-first point guard, amassing 280 assists. Needham is Fairfield's top player, but he was overworked last season. His production slipped from 16.4 points per game as a freshman to 14.1 points as a sophomore, and he was less-efficient from the free-throw line and from the floor.
"Having Desmond takes some pressure off of me," Needham said. "We have someone to bring the ball up the court. We have a high-IQ guy who can score. That takes a lot of physical pressure and mental pressure off my body and mind."
The Stags also add forward Rakim Sanders from Boston College. Needham called Sanders, who averaged 11.9 points and 4.3 rebounds in three seasons at Boston College, a "breath of fresh air" for his ability to score in different ways.
One reason for Sanders' transfer was that he wanted to play for Cooley, who was an assistant at BC when Sanders was being recruited. Given Sanders' comfort with Cooley, Needham said some teammates spoke with Sanders after Cooley left.
As it turned out, the departure did not bother Sanders. On Johnson's second day on the job, Sanders stopped by the coach's office to say he was glad to play for the new coach.
"As much as I thought I've got to win Rakim or anyone else over, here's a kid coming up to me," Johnson said. "Coaches appreciate how special a gesture that was."
After Johnson took the job, Cooley spoke with him at length about the strengths and weaknesses of the team and the challenges ahead. "It's almost like he opened the books," Johnson said.
Johnson got a close look at his team in late August, when the Stags embarked on an Italian tour. They went 4-0, but the biggest learning experience may have been in the second game.
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Fairfield fell behind 26-25 in an exhibition against a team from Forli. Johnson tore into his team for a lack of defensive effort and the Stags ended up winning 101-70.
"He's a very aggressive coach. He doesn't always seem like it because he's soft-spoken," Needham said. "It's all about defense. If we're not stopping anyone, scoring doesn't matter."
That will be one of the keys to turning Fairfield from a regular-season champion into an NCAA tournament team. One of the other keys will be mental toughness, which Needham said wasn't on full display last season.
If Fairfield can get over the hump, it could be in the same position Johnson's team at Princeton was in last season - in the NCAA tournament with a chance to win a game or two.
"We have this growing, emerging basketball program. We don't know what the future holds, but we feel it's bright and emerging," Johnson said. "It's exciting time. We want to be a part of that. There's a bit of unknown. How big can this be?"
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