Johnson adjusting to his new life at Fairfield

by | CBSSports.com
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In the second of two parts, we examine the emotional challenges coaches must face when they change jobs. Matt Norlander looks at how Sydney Johnson is adjusting to his new position at Fairfield.

It's supposed to be the good part, the fun part -- but there's always the unforeseen sour to the sweet. The goodbyes stay with coaches long after they've gone on to the bigger and better. It's the "this is how everyone's affected" part of the process, and it comes immediately for coaches. There is change and it is swift.

Ed Cooley (pictured) left behind a solid foundation for Sydney Johnson. (US Presswire)  
Ed Cooley (pictured) left behind a solid foundation for Sydney Johnson. (US Presswire)  
Ed Cooley grew up in the heart of Providence. In that sense, the choice for him to leave Fairfield for the Friars was fairly easy. Leaving a team with promise to win the MAAC again? That wasn't easy. Neither was turning his back on recruits he clearly loves and could've coached to an NCAA tournament or two. But he couldn't deny what his heart wants.

"It is the ultimate happy ending story when we turn this program around," Cooley said of his new job at Providence College.

Cooley added his courtship was "odd and fast." What he hated most: the timing. Fairfield was on spring break. Only four players were around when his departure was finalized, so instead of meeting anyone face to face, he had to call each player and recruit on the phone and tell him he was leaving.

"It was awful. I never had a formal group goodbye," Cooley said. "It was just awful."

New Stags coach Sydney Johnson and Cooley have spoken on the phone several times in the past month, everything from quirks of players, tips on how Cooley recruited (in a respectful way, according to Johnson) as well as what the town and campus atmosphere is like and which schools he should consider sending his children to.

"From the very first day I spent time in this office, the entire team would come in here and sit on that couch, sit on those chairs. Every single player on the team," Johnson said. "That, as much as anything, is Ed Cooley's legacy."

It's a legacy that lingers in Tyson Wheeler, an assistant from Cooley's staff who's staying on under Johnson. Something that often gets lost in these changeovers is the life of an assistant coach. Many lose their jobs and fall out of the business by the time they're 40. That can happen if a coach can't take an assistant to a new job, and that assistant isn't kept on at the old program.

On the basis of a high recommendation from Cooley, Wheeler stayed behind and joined Johnson's staff. Brian Earl stayed behind at Princeton to be with new coach Mitch Henderson. Tony Newsom and Martin Bahar made the move with Johnson, while Cooley brought Brian Blaney and Carmen Maciariello with him to Providence along with associate head coach Bob Simon. No jobs were lost. This isn't always the case.

"People don't understand how emotional it is -- for coaches and assistants," Cooley said. "To go to a new job, new kids, living in and out of the hotels, sometimes the back seat of a car."

  

If you happen to be a student walking across the Fairfield campus at 9 p.m. on a weeknight, even now, when coaches aren't permitted to work out with their team, you'll see the lights on at Johnson's office. Monday through Saturday, Johnson is at the campus -- living there, in fact. He's in a dorm, living the life of a freshman without the hassle of an incompatible roommate. The transition is still fresh and emotional. And a bit lonely.

For Johnson, 37, it has been a stir for four weeks. That's tough because his wife Jennifer (also a Princeton grad) and children -- Jalen, 6, and Julia, 4 -- are still living in their house in Plainsboro, N.J., finishing out the school year, soaking up as much time with friends before the impending move to Fairfield. They're attempting to sell the house, eager sellers in a buyer's market. Jennifer's father has flown in from Milwaukee to help expedite the process.

For now, Johnson drives back to Plainsboro on Saturday nights, spends all day Sunday with his family, then drives back to Fairfield early Monday. Cooley still lives in Milford, Conn.; his 13-year old son is finishing up eighth grade and his 10-year-old daughter is in the final stretch of elementary school. Cooley tries to get home on weekends, but hasn't been able to in some instances.

This is the biggest downside to taking a new job, and it's one that takes a bit of a toll on coaches and their families everywhere. Johnson and Cooley are fortunate; they're within driving distance, approximately 100 miles in each case. Others, like Geno Ford (Kent State to Bradley) and Frank Haith (Miami to Missouri) deal with extended time away from their families while they pack up and move across the country, the wives often searching for a house while the husband attempts to overachieve in his first months on the job.

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Matt Norlander Matt Norlander
Part 1: Fairfield discreetly lands Sydney Johnson. Read >>

The Johnson family goal is to find a home -- not a house -- before the coach and his staff must hit the road in July, the busiest in-person recruiting month of the year.

In his office, Johnson is perched behind his white Mac laptop, folded open with game tape paused. It's of Fairfield's opening-round NIT game against Colorado State, a game the Stags won 62-60, the last game Ed Cooley won at Fairfield. As that game was taking place, on March 15, Johnson was in Tampa, Fla., preparing to coach his final game at Princeton, though he didn't have any idea that was the case.

Princeton lost 59-57 to Kentucky in one of the most dramatic games of the 2011 NCAA tournament. The Wildcats' Brandon Knight ignited a UK Final Four run with the only field goal he managed to make against Johnson's Tigers with two seconds left.

The only personalization this new space has: Johnson has placed two framed photos on his desk -- one of his team in Tampa at this year's tournament, the other of him celebrating with Lawrence Schuler, a longtime student manager, the two holding the Ivy League trophy after defeating Harvard and unwittingly catching Fairfield athletic director Gene Doris' eye. Aside from that, there's a cluster of 8½-x-11 paper, a Fairfield hat that looks like it has spent all of 10 seconds on a human's head, and a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers peeking out of a half-torn wrapping paper. Johnson said he plans to read the book eventually, but who knows if he'll have the time in the coming weeks and months. Johnson's in full Fairfield form, though. He can rattle off the names of the previous five, six Fairfield coaches. He was lucky, unlike Cooley, to not lose any recruits.

And he still connects with his former players. His Princeton ties made cutting them all the more acute. The coach became a commodity once he led Princeton to its first NCAA tournament in seven years. He went 34-22 in the Ivy in his four years. In his first season, the team was 6-23 overall, meaning this past season was a culmination of the biggest turnaround in Princeton basketball history.

"It's a conflict of emotions that embodies how I feel, even today," Johnson said. "But you still have to cut the cord from the Princeton program. ... I love Princeton basketball and always will, and I know that's been much talked about. But the hardest thing to do was to start my coaching career at a place I love so much. Because, if you're committing yourself, if you have some level of ambition, you're naturally going to grow, mature and develop -- and you can't necessarily stay in the same place for your entire career. I didn't have the foresight to realize this, but it was the hardest place to start."

It was unfiltered emotion when Johnson told his team he was leaving.

"I had this sense of doom. ... I was always talking to them about 'us, us, us,' and then one of us was leaving -- and that was me," Johnson said. "And I was opting out. I wanted to leave. To have to look them in the eye and tell them that was really hard. ... But I don't feel like I was leaving them emotionally, and I never will."

  

The move felt like a natural progression for Johnson, even if it was a tough one, like graduating from college, accepting the next step.

"If I felt I could grow as a coach while at Princeton, I'd be there," Johnson said. "But I had to take this challenge on. I had to make that break."

There is also the unquestioned financial support for Johnson and his coaching staff, too; the overall sense of an aspiration to be bigger in athletics, and Fairfield's vision that a successful men's basketball team can give the university an enhanced, positive reputation.

In the Ivy League, that's still not a universally accepted mindset.

"Fairfield wants to be a little bit bigger. It's been around since 1942," Johnson said. "Princeton's 250 years old or so. Princeton's figured it out, in a good way. They've figured out everything they want to be, from an institutional level, a basketball level, everything. Fairfield's trying to figure it out, to be bigger, and I wanted to jump on that."

Doris acknowledges Johnson could one day repeat what Cooley just did to Fairfield: leave for a Big East job. In fact, it's part of the reason he was such an attractive candidate.

"I don't know that I'd want to see a changeover in a year or whatever, but I also know how volatile the business is now," Doris said. "And when changes do happen, the big dog eats. Sydney, we know, is going to be a hot prospect going forward if he has the success here we're confident he's going to have. But you can't worry about that. If the program continues to improve, you can't worry about whether someone's going to stay here."

A year ago, Johnson wasn't even on Doris' list. Then Princeton beat Harvard and made the NCAA tournament. If and when Johnson leaves, Doris has his next list ready, tucked somewhere in his drawer.

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