November 21, 2007: Features
By Brett Tomlinson
The photo on Northwestern coach Bill Carmody’s desk shows one of the most enduring images in the recent history of Princeton basketball. Mitch Henderson ’98, now one of Carmody’s assistants, is leaping and shouting, arms raised in jubilation, as the Tigers complete their unthinkable victory over defending national champion UCLA in the 1996 NCAA tournament. But behind Henderson, teammate Sydney Johnson ’97 does not seem quite ready to celebrate. His eyes are fixed on some point in the distance — the game clock, Carmody suspects. Johnson seems to be checking it one more time to confirm that it reads all zeroes.
“He wanted to be sure all the bases were covered,” Carmody says. “He’s been a coach all along.”
When Johnson, at age 33 and with just three years of coaching experience on his résumé, was named Princeton’s head coach last April, those outside the program might have been surprised. But for Johnson’s former coaches — including Carmody, Armond Hill ’85, and John Thompson III ’88 — and the two dozen players who called him “captain,” the choice made perfect sense. “He’s more than ready,” says Thompson, who was Johnson’s boss and mentor at Georgetown. “There’s no better person for that job.”
Of course, being called the right man for the job does not make the job any easier, as Joe Scott ’87 discovered. Under Scott, who left for the University of Denver after three seasons at Princeton, the Tigers struggled to a 2–12 record in Ivy League games last year and posted consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the 1940s. Meanwhile, Penn has been dominant, winning three straight Ivy titles, and Cornell and Yale have emerged as consistent winners. Harvard, a perennial second-tier team, seems determined to improve its program after hiring former Michigan coach Tommy Amaker in April.
Princeton opened its 2007–08 schedule earlier this month, and before the season, Johnson preached patience and unity, hoping to apply some of the lessons he had learned in helping to turn around a tradition-rich program at Georgetown. The Hoyas won the Big East Tournament and reached the NCAA Final Four in 2007, but when Thompson and his staff took over in 2004, they were coming off a 13–15 season. “It was tough [in the first year], and we had our fair share of losses,” Johnson says. “We had to learn about ourselves along the way. ... But we never doubted that it was us against them. That’s certainly what I want for Princeton basketball.”
Just a few years removed from a successful career as a professional player in Europe, Johnson has an impressive track record. He played for two celebrated high school programs — Towson (Md.) Catholic and Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy — before coming to Princeton. With the Tigers, he was the only three-year captain in team history, leading his teams to two Ivy titles. He went on to win three more championships in seven seasons in Italy and Spain before returning to the United States to join Thompson’s staff.
At Georgetown, Johnson was asked to do a little bit of everything — recruiting, individual instruction, planning practices, breaking down game tapes, organizing the scout team — and he excelled in them all, according to Thompson. But Johnson’s leadership training began long before his coaching days, or even his high school days. His parents divorced when he was young, and his father, LeRoy, a history professor, raised Sydney and his two older brothers in a series of college towns. LeRoy Johnson had been a college basketball standout at Indiana University and was one of the first Americans to play professionally in France, but with his sons, he emphasized academics and life lessons. Someday, you’ll have the opportunity to lead the people around you, he would tell them. Prepare for that. Be ready. Sydney took the message to heart.
When he first visited Princeton, late in his postgraduate year at Fork Union, Johnson made an immediate impression on assistant coach Hill, now an assistant with the NBA’s Boston Celtics. Johnson was soft-spoken, polite, and engaging. “You could tell then and there that he was a thinker,” Hill says. “He was never afraid to ask questions. He wanted to know why things worked or why they didn’t.”
Johnson had made plans to play at other colleges before Princeton showed interest, first committing to Boston University when he was a senior at Towson Catholic, and later signing with Miami University in Ohio when he was at Fork Union. (The twists and turns in his college search, he says, make him sympathetic to the difficult choices that today’s recruits face.) By the time Princeton’s coaches arranged his visit, spring classes had ended, and Johnson’s host, Chris Mooney ’94, was studying for exams. There was no wining and dining — just a meeting with coach Pete Carril and the assistants and an informal tour — but Johnson was hooked. He loved the program and the place. “If you choose to go to a school based on a visit like that, you’re probably coming for the right reasons,” he says.
When practice began in the fall, teammates did not know exactly what to make of Johnson when they saw the spindle-legged freshman sprinting from basket to basket in layup drills like a little kid who’d never seen a full court. Mooney, now the head coach at the University of Richmond, says no one figured Johnson’s enthusiasm could last. But it did, and it was contagious.
Johnson found a place in the starting lineup early that season, and the Tigers went 11–3 in Ivy games. But they could not get past Penn, with its stellar duo of guards Jerome Allen and Matt Maloney, both of whom would go on to play in the NBA. The story continued in Johnson’s sophomore
year, and even in his junior year, after Allen and Maloney graduated. Princeton was 12–2 in Ivy games that season, and both losses were to the Quakers.
Years later, after he had gone head-to-head with some of the best teams in Europe, Johnson realized that there are some teams so loaded with talent and so in sync with each other that opponents have to play a near-perfect game just to stay close. Penn, in the Allen and Maloney days, was one of those teams. “I’m just glad that at some point, it turned our way, and we were forcing other teams to play mistake-free basketball,” he says.
Johnson almost single-handedly reversed the trend in 1996, when Princeton faced Penn in a playoff that would turn out to be Carril’s final Ivy game. The Quakers had beaten Princeton six straight times and, after a remarkable second-half comeback, seemed headed toward seven. But with just over a minute left in overtime, Johnson drained an arching 3-pointer from the right corner, recapturing the lead for Princeton.
Moments later, after making two free throws to put the Tigers up by five, Johnson poked the ball free as Penn guard Ira Bowman tried a crossover dribble near the foul line, forcing a turnover and punching Princeton’s ticket to the NCAA Tournament, where it would face UCLA. “The sheer joy [of the win over Penn] is just something that those of us who were there will never forget,” Director of Athletics Gary Walters ’67 said last April. “Knowing that this was Coach Carril’s last year, there was something magical about it.”
The win over UCLA, which came less than a week later, drew national attention to the Tigers’ resurgence, and afterward, Princeton basketball became synonymous with the slow, low-scoring approach that Carril’s team used to beat the UCLA Bruins. “Coach Carril had a particular game plan,” Johnson says. “We slowed the ball down, we didn’t go for any offensive rebounds. We really changed our game drastically to beat them, and we did. And it was terrific. But then everybody thought that’s how we play all the time.”
The 43–41 final score, Johnson says, was an anomaly. Princeton scored 88 points in a win over St. Joseph’s earlier that season and averaged 60 points per game for the year. Carril, perceived as rigid and old-school, showed flexibility by understanding matchups and seeing what it would take to beat each opponent — an attribute that Johnson tries to emulate in his coaching.
While Thompson is Johnson’s most recent mentor and a trusted adviser, Carril’s influence remains apparent. Outside of his immediate family, LeRoy Johnson says, no one did more to shape Sydney than the man who brought him to Princeton. Playing for Carril was never easy, and being a captain raised the expectations another notch. But Johnson took it in stride. “If Coach Carril put pressure on me,” he says, “it meant that he saw something in me worth bringing out.”
Among Carril’s many philosophies is the idea that sports reveal character, not build it. If that’s true, then Johnson’s trajectory as a player stands as a testament to his selflessness. A deadly 3-point shooter in his freshman season, Johnson gradually stepped back as a scorer. Brian Earl ’99 became the Tigers’ long-range specialist, and Steve Goodrich ’98 emerged as a pivotal player in the post. But Johnson aggressively improved in other aspects like passing, rebounding, and defense, which became his calling card. With boundless energy, long, sinewy arms, and a knack for working around screens, he would shut down the leading scorers on opposing teams.
In Johnson’s senior year, Ivy coaches voted him Player of the Year, even though he scored fewer than 10 points per game. “You’d have to watch the games to know [how important Johnson was],” says Goodrich, who would win Player of the Year honors in 1998. “He wasn’t our leading scorer, but he was always our best player.”
When Johnson’s playing days at Princeton ended, he had several options, and graduate school in history was near the top of the list. But the chance to play professional basketball in Europe was too attractive to ignore. In May of his senior year, Johnson went to a tryout camp in Treviso, Italy, following the path of both his father and older brother Steve, who had played at the University of California, Berkeley, before starting a pro career overseas.
In Italy, and later Spain, Johnson witnessed an intense pressure to win, and he thrived, finding his niche as a defender and playmaker. Brent Scott, an assistant coach at Rice, played alongside Johnson with Reggio Calabria, a second-division team in Italy, during the late 1990s. The team had a mix of players, including Brian Oliver, an ex-NBA guard settling into the second act of his career, and Manu Ginobili, a young, relatively unknown Argentinian who would go on to be an NBA All-Star. Oliver and Ginobili were headliners in what would be a championship season, but Johnson “was the engine,” Scott says.
Johnson soon began to think that coaching could be his next step, and his experiences on the floor reinforced that idea. The fundamentals that Carril and other Princeton coaches treasured — passing, dribbling, and shooting — were second nature for European players, so Johnson had to work harder to find weaknesses in his opponents. Living abroad, he jokes, was “a seven-year vacation,” but it was an education as well.
When Johnson decided to leave pro basketball in 2004, his timing was perfect. He had kept in touch with Thompson, an assistant coach during Johnson’s Princeton years, and got a message from the coach about his upcoming move to Georgetown. A job offer soon followed. Timing again helped last spring, when Joe Scott left Princeton for Denver in the middle of Georgetown’s impressive march through the NCAA East Regional. Of the half-dozen coaches most frequently mentioned as candidates for the Princeton job, Johnson would be the only one who coached in the Final Four.
Leaving Georgetown was difficult, and not just because of his team’s recent success. After bouncing around Europe, Johnson and his wife, Jennifer (Zarr) Johnson ’97, had settled into their new home with their 2-year-old son, Jalen, and newborn daughter, Julia. But Princeton, where Sydney and Jennifer first met as freshmen in Wilson College, seemed like home as well. Johnson accepted the job in late April. When he was introduced, he told reporters, “I just knew this was the right place for me.”
At the April press conference and in the months that followed, Johnson’s public comments focused on his plans for the future, from encouraging his players to be more aggressive to raising the level of talent through recruiting. But on one morning in September, a week before students arrived for the fall semester, he sat in the office where Carril once worked and allowed himself to drift back to his undergraduate days for a few minutes. Of the many memories, the playoff game against Penn remains most vivid, he says, recalling the quiet confidence he and his teammates had on the bus that morning and the exhilaration they felt as Princeton fans poured onto the court as time expired.
“I think we all smile about that moment,” Johnson says. “As great as that moment was, I want to share [another one] with our guys in the program right now.”
Brett Tomlinson is a PAW associate editor.