BASKETBALL PREVIEW: Johnson Returns To Raise Up BC
Published: Thursday, November 8, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
The term “rebuilding” is one of the hardest for any coach, player, or fan to swallow in the world of sports, yet it is not an altogether rare phenomenon. A program in the rebuilding stages is one that has lost its way and may require anything from a simple coaching change to a roster overhaul in order to set it back on the right path.
With certain extenuating circumstances, however, the best candidate to engineer such a turnaround may just be someone with knowledge of what was working before it began to go wrong. The women’s basketball team and former athletic director Gene DeFilippo found that individual when they brought Erik Johnson back to the Heights to replace Sylvia Crawley in April.
“We know Erik is an outstanding coach and a strong leader,” DeFilippo said in the University’s official press release at the time. “He has done a great job with the Denver program and we are very pleased to welcome him back to the Boston College family.”
Johnson, a coach known for his passionate and energetic approach to the game of basketball, represents a radical departure from his reserved predecessor, Crawley. The return to Boston College that DeFilippo alluded to was a reference to his time here from 2005 to 2008, when he served as assistant coach and recruiting coordinator to Cathy Inglese.
“I am in a much different position than most new coaches, in that I know exactly what I’m getting into,” Johnson said of returning to the place where he got his start in coaching. “I know the people, I know the place, and I know the culture. I knew BC fit me. Having seen Cathy Inglese and how she had built this thing, and knowing what it takes to be successful at Boston College, I feel like I have a leg up. This isn’t an unknown quantity—we have the right types of players, we just need to roll up our sleeves and go create the right culture and make it happen.”
Prior to Crawley’s tough four-year tenure on the Heights, the women’s team was led by the long-serving Inglese. Hired in 1993, Inglese brought Johnson to BC for the first time in 2005, where he served with her until her abrupt resignation in April of 2008.
During his first stint at BC, Johnson was known for his recruiting prowess, which contributed to the Eagles’ appearance in the Sweet 16 in 2006. Later under Inglese, Johnson’s presence was crucial in bringing the likes of Carolyn Swords, Jaclyn Thoman, and Stefanie Murphy to the Heights, all three of whom enjoyed successful careers in the maroon and gold.
It was around the time of Inglese’s departure that Johnson moved from BC to the Sun Belt Conference, where he earned his first head-coaching job at the University of Denver. Johnson’s teams showed marked improvement each of the four years he served there, as they improved from 16-14 in his inaugural year to 19-12 in each of the last two years.
“We were able to build a culture at Denver where the kids knew what we did well,” Johnson said. “We moved the basketball really well, we created shots for each other, we had really high assist rates, and we shot a really high percentage, all because we don’t really care who shot the ball. Our team walked into every game really believing we were going to come out with a win. On paper, we should not have been in some of those games, but our kids knew that if we executed our game plan, we could win every night. I have to give a lot of credit to Cathy Inglese for teaching me as an assistant the power of making those adjustments and having smart kids who buy in.”
Along the way, Johnson’s up-tempo style earned Denver its first win over a ranked opponent in program history, as well as numerous other victories over teams from the power conferences. In his second-to-last season, BC’s new head coach steered Denver to an appearance in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), the women’s program’s first postseason berth in 10 years.
Johnson’s recruiting expertise was on full display with Denver’s 2012 class of recruits, as that group was ranked by ESPN as the 16th best overall for mid-major schools.
In returning to the Heights, however, Johnson will face a wholly unfamiliar situation. The Eagles finished with a moribund 7-23 record last season, leaving the incoming coach and his staff with a daunting rebuilding task. The hardships the Eagles will face are exacerbated by the fact that they must engineer a turnaround amidst the perennially tough ACC.
Last season’s struggles were made all the more surprising by the fact that the program had not experienced a losing season since midway through Johnson’s first term at BC.
This season’s roster features only one senior, guard Kerri Shields, and should give the energetic Johnson enough young pieces to mold the Eagles into the type of team he thinks can be successful.
“Your team is going to reflect your personality, and that’s one of the first things you learn in coaching,” Johnson said. “There are a million things to do each day, and you’re defined by what matters most to you. For me, the enthusiasm, passion, loving the game is the most important part. Even when things go badly, you’re supposed to be having fun. If you’re going to be a good basketball team, it has got to be more than just a job. This is about trying to get [the team] to love the game again. It’s about playing hard, playing together, and loving what you’re doing, and I think we’re getting there.”