Johnson '97 comes home
Sydney Johnson '97 will take over as the head coach of the men's basketball team, the Department of Athletics announced Friday afternoon. The former Georgetown assistant will be formally introduced at a press conference today at noon.
Johnson replaces Joe Scott '87, who resigned from the position just over a month ago to accept the top job at the University of Denver. The only three-time captain in Tiger history, Johnson returns to the University after three years on the staff of former Princeton head coach John Thompson III '88.
"I'm happy that Sydney got the job," Johnson's former coach Pete Carril said. "He was a wonderful player and I've always thought he'd be a great leader, and that's what you do when you coach."
The offer to Johnson was first reported by The Daily Princetonian on Wednesday night, but Director of Athletics Gary Walters '67 declined to confirm at the time that Johnson had been selected, saying that the search was "ongoing."
In a statement released by the Athletics Department Friday, Walters spoke about the decision he and the search committee made to go with Johnson.
"As a player at Princeton, Sydney Johnson was the embodiment of heart, passion, class and dignity," Walters said. "We are delighted that he will bring those same qualities back to Princeton as our head men's basketball coach."
Walters, who could not be reached for further comment, will speak again at today's press conference, to be held in the Class of 1956 Lounge at Princeton Stadium. He will be joined by Johnson, as well as a selection of current Tigers.
The players were notified of Johnson's hiring at a team meeting Friday afternoon. After speaking with their new coach, the players' responses have been overwhelmingly positive.
"I think I speak for the whole team when I say that I am very excited about the hiring of Coach Johnson," freshman center Zach Finley said. "He seems to bring the type of leadership our team needs to keep getting better, and I think everyone in the program is excited to get a fresh start and begin working for next year."
"Everyone is relieved that the coaching search is over," freshman guard Marcus Schroeder said. "[Johnson] is young and came from a successful program at Georgetown. He will bring energy to the table."
Despite the fact that he'll be graduating in a few weeks, senior forward Luke Owings was also excited about Johnson's appointment.
"He has a history of success in his basketball endeavors and, most importantly, he shows an incredible rapport with the guys on the team," Owings said in an email. "He reminds me of what it was like to be in the locker room with Coach Thompson. His easygoing manner and approachable demeanor are sure to make him a hit not just among the student-athletes on the team, but [also] in the university community."
As a Tiger, Johnson was on the floor for one of the most memorable postseason moments in program history: Princeton's 43-41 upset of defending national champion UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA Tournament.
"He brings an experience to Princeton basketball that nobody's ever had," Johnson's former teammate Sean Gregory '98 said. "Not even John Thompson brought that."
Johnson, who will turn 33 on Thursday, becomes the youngest head coach in the Ivy League. With just three years of coaching experience, he was among the least tenured of the candidates who were under consideration for the job according to published reports. That list reportedly included fellow Georgetown assistant Robert Burke, current Princeton assistant coach Mike Brennan '94, Brown head coach Craig Robinson '83, Boston Celtics assistant Armond Hill '85, Lafayette head coach Fran O'Hanlon and former West Virginia assistant Mike Maker.
"My first reaction was, 'Wow, [Walters] went with a guy who's relatively young,'" Gregory said. "But he's going to be great."
Before going to Georgetown, Johnson played professionally for seven years in Italy and Spain. A four-year starter as a Tiger and the 1997 Ivy League Player of the Year, Princeton coaching legend Carril once called Johnson the best defensive player he ever coached. Johnson is a member of the program's 1,000-point club and ranks among the top five on the all-time list in assists, steals and three-pointers made.
Johnson inherits a Princeton program that has fallen from national recognition during its three years under Scott, bottoming out with a 2-12 Ivy League record this past season.
At Georgetown, Johnson helped lead the Hoyas to a Final Four berth in the NCAA Tournament this season and made a name for himself both through his work with players and as a recruiter. Though Johnson is young and untested, Gregory is confident that the hiring of his former teammate may be just the boost Princeton basketball needs.
"It's going to be an unbelievable boon to the program," Gregory said. "When Sydney Johnson walks into your home and you're an 18-year-old kid, it's going to make an impression."