On the face of it, Alabama’s hiring of Avery Johnson as its new men’s basketball coach is a puzzling one.
Johnson has years of coaching experience, but in the NBA. The New Orleans native left college basketball behind after his stellar seasons as Southern’s point guard were his launching pad to superstardom in “The Association.”
But so often when colleges make a hire to replace someone they fired, they pick someone who’s 180 degrees from the person they just jettisoned. And in that way, Johnson is the man for Alabama.
Bama supposedly wanted Gregg Marshall and tried to make a multimillion offer (some reports say more than $4 million per year) to lure him away from Wichita State. But Marshall stayed in Kansas for $3.3 million per year, and Alabama had to keep looking.
Bama may not have made a technically correct hire in Johnson, but perhaps it made the hire that was the right fit for the times for two reasons. Their names are Anthony Grant and Bruce Pearl.
Alabama has built statues to its national championship football coaches. Grant was a statue all on his own in dress slacks. A writer who covers Alabama told me people who worked with him at the school felt like they didn’t know him. He’s one of those people who seems to have undergone a charisma bypass somewhere along his career arc.
Meanwhile, Auburn hired Pearl. The guy is flawed and arguably soiled by his past transgressions in a way that will never completely wash off. But the man stripped off his shirt, painted himself orange and planted himself in the student section at a Tennessee women’s game. He’s the Gulf Coast distributor of charisma.
In Johnson, Alabama got a coach who can go megawatt for megawatt with Pearl in the personality department. Ultimately, Johnson will have to win, but in the meantime everyone at Alabama will love the heck out of him.
Still there will be challenges. Big ones. Pro basketball and college basketball are two sports separated by a common language. Johnson’s task is not to get lost in translation.
“There’s a ton of things,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said. “No. 1, recruiting. I mean, none of us know what that’s like. It’s a totally different deal. Their timeout situations are different. Shorter games. Less games, more preparation time. And all the college coaches I talk to in the summer time, they talk about all the stuff they have to do outside of basketball, whether it’s speaking to alumni, compliance, all the stuff you have to pay attention to. If you don’t, you get violations and things that can hurt your school.”
That said, Williams is confident Johnson will make the moves to do the job.
“I’m sure A.J. will hire the right people around him to help him navigate that,” Williams said.
When it comes to recruiting, Johnson has ties to the Texas AAU scene (his son Avery is a guard at Texas A&M). He and Bama football assistant Burton Burns went to St. Augustine — where they must teach a class in recruiting.
They will get to know Avery Johnson in Alabama in a way they never knew Anthony Grant, but Bama is used to winning big and that’s the main thing.
We’ll find out if Johnson is big enough for that task.