I have no idea if Avery Johnson will succeed as the new men’s basketball coach at the University of Alabama, but I like what I hear so far.
Wednesday, with my own ears, I heard Coach Johnson say that his goal is to get Alabama to the Final Four. Like many Auburn fans hankering for just one National Championship in their lifetimes (before Gene Chizik brought one to them in 2010), for just once in my life I’d love to see an Alabama basketball team advance to the game’s biggest stage.
Right now, I’d settle for an NCAA appearance. Even a play-in game would be a step in the right direction. But Johnson used the “C” word when describing his goals. “Championship” hasn’t been muttered around these parts in some time.
In Wednesday’s press conference, Johnson said that Duke University was the standard for how he plans to build the Crimson Tide basketball program. That thought may be as absurd as Duke University’s David Cutcliff saying the University of Alabama is the standard for how he plans to build Duke’s football program. But to his credit, at least Johnson said it. At least he believes it, or at least wants it to be.
The Bama basketball program has been taking on water for years. Many changes are necessary to make Coleman Coliseum a formidable place for opponents to try and earn a win, with leadership being at the core of the problem. I so wanted Anthony Grant to be the answer, and was stoked over his hiring. But Grant was a corpse who refused to promote his program…a necessary evil at a place like Alabama. Had Grant won, promotion wouldn’t have been necessary. But with one radio interview Wednesday, Avery Johnson matched such interviews by Grant in his six years at the Capstone.
In terms of personality, Johnson is everything Grant wasn’t. He says all the right things, has charisma, and possesses some semblance of a pulse. Can he coach? Well, at one time he was the NBA coach of the year. And contrary to the contrarians out there, many of the rules are the same on the college level. Free throws are 1-pt., the goal is 10 feet high, and the ball is inflated to 8 psi.
Right now Avery Johnson sounds like a coach feeling his way along, but elated at the chance to get to do so. If you’re a Tide basketball fan, you have to be equally excited that Bill Battle swung for the fences in the hiring process. Johnson may prove to be a home run hire in the long run, but even now, with where this program is today, he is at worst a stand-up triple.
Not to be missed also is the University of Alabama hiring its second consecutive African-American head coach, a move further distancing the University from its well-earned racial stereotypes from the 1960s. While it’s a hope that one day this isn’t a matter of importance, it still is today, and no doubt recruits (and their families) should and will take note. In particular, the “one and dones” Johnson announced in his opening presser he wants to land. “If you want to get to the NBA, I’m your guy.” Spoken like a true 1999 NBA Champion.
Avery Johnson also appears to be a man of high moral character, outspoken in his faith and faithful to his wife of 24 years…two more pluses when dealing with kids and their families trying to make a decision about college. With no Bruce Pearl-like greasy skeletons in his closet, Johnson’s image is as squeaky clean as his voice.
Johnson gives life to a Bama basketball program on life support off and on for the better part of two decades. Will he turn the Tide into a contender? I have no clue. But he believes he can, and will, even chiding coach Battle in his press conference that it wouldn’t take the full six years of his contract to do it. Notions thought to be long extinct on the hardwood in Tuscaloosa: Enthusiasm, and ambition.