The balls bounce. The players shoot. The assistant coaches observe. Together, they laugh. They brag. They shoot some more. They laugh some more. It’s typical pre-practice stuff.
Then Sydney Johnson sticks his head around the corner. He offers only one word. Not even a word, really.
He doesn’t scream it. He doesn’t repeat it. He is barely audible.
“Yo,” he says in a soft voice.
Then he points, index finger straight up. Then he’s gone, back around the corner and on his way upstairs.
The balls stop bouncing. The players no longer shoot. It’s time to go to work. Everyone on the west court of Jadwin Gym stops what he’s doing and follows.
Sydney Johnson leads. Others follow.
It’s been that way from Day 1.
“At end of the day, he has the ability to relate to people,” says his former employer, Georgetown coach John Thompson III, an assistant coach during Johnson’s playing days at Princeton and then the Tiger head coach from 2000-04. “That’s the core of this business. That’s the core of being a successful coach: Get the people around you to believe in you and what you’re doing. Sydney does that.”
The game that Princeton fans remember most from the last 25 years or so is the 43-41 win over UCLA in the opening round of the 1996 NCAA tournament. The players on that team, to a man, insist that the playoff game against Penn five days earlier was much more special to them.
In case you forgot, Princeton and Penn both went 12-2 during the 1996 Ivy season. Princeton was 12-0 against the rest of the league and 0-2 against Penn; the Quakers lost during the regular season to Dartmouth and Yale. Penn did drill Princeton 63-49 in the final game of the regular season as the teams became co-champions. The playoff game to determine the NCAA tournament bid would be held at Lehigh on Saturday night, March 9, 1996.
Entering the game, Penn had beaten Princeton eight straight times; six of those had been by double figures, including the one the previous Tuesday night in Philadelphia.
Princeton led this time, wire-to-almost-wire. Led, that is, until Ira Bowman hit a three-pointer with 10 seconds left to tie it. Now the game was headed to overtime, and Princeton was left with zero momentum going forward.
Penn even went ahead in the overtime, grabbing a 52-51 lead when Cedric Laster completed a three-point play with 4:02 to go. The game was tied at 54-54 heading into to the one-minute mark.
To that point, Princeton junior captain Sydney Johnson had played 42 of 44 minutes. In that time, he had scored seven points, shooting 1 for 7 from the field and 4 for 5 from the foul line. He had one steal.
Now it was Princeton ball, game still tied, shot clock drifting under 10. Under 5. Game clock near 1:00. Gabe Lewullis had the ball, but he had no shot. He managed to get the ball to Johnson in the corner deep on the right side. With the shot clock about to expire, Johnson let it go.
Princeton 57, Penn 54.
Back came the Quakers. Laster put up a three to tie, but it was no good. Rebound to Johnson. Quick foul, with 24 seconds left. Two shots. Good. Good.
Desperately, Penn ran the ball up the court. Johnson took it away. Got it to Brian Earl, who was fouled and made both. Twenty seconds later, Princeton had won it 63-56. Then Pete Carril announced he was retiring after 29 years as Tiger head coach. And then it was on to the NCAA tournament, to the win over UCLA.
“My attitude when I played,” Sydney Johnson says, 11 years later, as he prepares for his first season as Princeton head coach, four generations removed from Carril and a few months removed from the Final Four as an assistant at Georgetown, “was that I might come up short sometimes, but I wasn’t going to be scared. Ever.”
Sydney Johnson took that attitude and turned it into a ridiculously successful career as a player at Princeton before graduating in 1997 as the only three-time captain in program history. He held in such high esteem by the rest of the Ivy coaches that was he was a two-time first-team All-Ivy League selection and the 1997 Ivy League Player of the Year despite never averaging 8.8 points per game as a junior and 9.2 as a senior. He was the first player since 1984 to be named first-team All-Ivy without averaging double figures in points and remains the only Ivy Player of the Year not to average in double figures.
“I have always been impressed with Princeton’s class and dignity,” says Fran Dunphy, now the Temple coach but the longtime Penn coach who went up against the Tigers during Johnson’s playing career. “Sydney Johnson embodies those characteristics more than anyone I saw in my tenure at Penn.”
Johnson was a defensive stopper who also managed to score 1,044 points and set the Princeton record with 11 consecutive three-pointers made.
His Princeton career was like a highlight film of great clutch moments of buzzer beaters, big shots, great second-half comebacks, huge defensive plays and anything else Princeton needed.
“He always had the leadership,” Carril says. “You could tell that just by looking at him. He is ready for anything. And he won. What else do you want from the guy, right?”
And so now he embarks, at the age of 33, in his new position. He does so with that same attitude, that he is not scared. Not in the least.
Despite the challenges of restoring the program to where it was when he was a player, and despite the fact that he brings with him three years experience as an assistant under Thompson, Sydney Johnson is not scared.
“Too many times, people determine one’s readiness solely on time,” Thompson says. “They say that he’s only been doing this for so long or doesn’t have that much experience. I had no reservations or doubts or concerns in making him a key assistant here at Georgetown. It’s not like he’s going to come in a wave a magic wand and it’ll be 1998 all over again. It’ll take time, and it’s a process. I think he is the right person to make that process happen. He’s ready, and he has been ready.”
Johnson’s three years at Georgetown saw the Hoyas go from a losing record prior to the coaching change to an NIT bid to the Sweet 16 and last year to the Final Four.
“Coach Johnson is a players’ coach on every level,” says Georgetown guard Jonathan Wallace. “If I had to think of one word to describe him, it’d be ‘interactive.’ Academics. Basketball. Anything. You could talk to him about anything you wanted, and he’d listen to you and you knew he’d been through it all before you. He was like that here, and I think he’ll instill that feeling in his guys there.”
Watch Johnson for any length of time, and you’ll quickly see much of Thompson, Carril and his other mentors in his speech and mannerisms. Given almost any opportunity he will recognize those who have come before him as Princeton coaches.
“Between Coach Thompson and Coach [Armond] Hill, Coach [Joe] Scott, Coach [Bill] Carmody and Coach [Levy], I would put the assistant coaching staff I had as an undergraduate up there with any ever,” he says. “They were remarkable, all of them. I’ve been lucky to have great coaches and mentors.”
That list predates Johnson’s time at Princeton.
Johnson grew up in Towson, Md., and attended Towson High and then Towson Catholic before spending a postgraduate year at Fork Union Military Academy, where he was coached by legendary prep coach Fletcher Arritt.
“He is the fairest man I’ve ever known,” Johnson says. “He shoots straight with you. He gives you a chance and challenges you. He’s everything you can ask for in a coach.”
Johnson was recruited by several Division I schools, but Carril recognized quickly what he was watching.
“The first time I saw him, I thought he had a bad shot,” says Carril. “I was watching him, and the coach from Davidson was there. I thought maybe he thought he could make a shooter out of him. I was worried sick.”
Johnson came to Princeton and moved into the starting lineup for the second game of his freshman year. He never left.
His freshman and sophomore years saw Penn dominate the league at the end of the Jerome Allen-Matt Maloney era. His junior year began as a wide-open one and ended up with one of the greatest weeks in program history.
“The playoff game is the game we all think about,” says Johnson. “There was so much emotion for that game. We all decided we weren’t going to lose. Our whole team did on the bus ride there. All that being said, at the end of regulation, we let them hit that three. We could have fallen back there, because Penn was ready to win. Coach Carril had talked to us every day about what it was to beat Penn and to be league champion. To finally do it was awesome.”
After that, it was off to Indianapolis for the UCLA game. The defending-NCAA champion Bruins got off to a quick start, and it was a shutout at the first TV timeout.
“It was 7-0 UCLA,” Johnson says. “They had a big power dunk in there. At the timeout, we all took a deep breath and figured that if it was going to go this way, we should at least try to play our game and see what happened. That’s when it started to turn.”
The night was classic Sydney Johnson. He was 0 for 4 from the field, 0 for 3 from three-point range, in the first half, but he would come back to score all 11 of his points in the second half. Just as had been the case in the playoff game and so many other nights of his career, it was Johnson who hit the biggest shot of the night.
UCLA led 36-31 before Johnson’s three-pointer with 8:48 to play, but UCLA then built it back to 41-34 and then almost pushed it to a nine-point game before Charles O’Bannon missed a breakaway layup with five minutes to go.
Johnson came back on the next possession and calmly dropped in a three-pointer from well beyond the line. Had he missed that shot, Princeton almost certainly would not have come back; instead, it became a four-point game with four minutes to go. After a Chris Doyal layup cut it to two, Johnson then finished a fast-break with a layup to tie it with 2:58 to go.
Lewullis would win the game on his now-legendary layup off the feed from Steve Goodrich with 3.9 seconds to play. The Bruins’ final shot was a Toby Bailey airball as Johnson did not allow him a clean look.
“Every few weeks, someone mentions that game to me,” Johnson says. “It’s quite humbling that people feel so tied to what we did here, to those teams and those players. I’ve been given more than enough positive feedback about that stuff. Selfishly or altruistically, I want that for my players now. I’ve had my time. People can remind me about it. I want that for [current players] Noah Savage and Zach Woolridge and everyone else. That’s what I’m trying to create for them.”
Johnson’s senior season built on the success of the year before. Carmody became the head coach, and the Tigers ripped through the league 14-0 and went 24-3 in the regular season before losing 54-52 to a Cal team led by future NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
To this day, Johnson remains first all-time at Princeton in assists, fourth in three-pointers made, fifth in assists [Thompson ranks third] and 24th in points.
“He was a great defender,” says Carril. “He worked a lot on his shot. He’s a guy who kept getting better. And he was tough. Made every big shot.”
Johnson won an NCAA postgraduate scholarship, but he decided to forego any graduate study and go to Europe to play professionally. He would stay for seven years, spending five in Italy and then the last two in Spain.
Professional basketball in Europe meant one game per week and practice the rest of the time, which made it more like a football regimen than the basketball background of a U.S. college player. The season would run from late summer until late spring.
“It was phenomenal, challenging,” he says. “It was rewarding. Some of the friends I made overseas are as close as my Princeton teammates. The schedule was four hours of practice a day, two in the morning and two in the evening. We usually had one game a week and then a day off. It was like a paid vacation. I would go to museums, to the beach. I’d drive with my wife [his Princeton classmate, the former Jennifer Zarr] to Rome. When we were in Spain, we’d spend every off day in Barcelona. We enjoyed life in Europe.”
He was in Europe on Sept. 11, 2001, and experienced that day from the perspective of the Europeans.
“I was taking a pre-practice nap, and when I woke up, I saw the second tower go down,” he says. “Being so far from home was scary, but the people there couldn’t have been any more considerate, gracious. They were very supporting of the American players. They asked if our family was okay. I couldn’t haven’t been safer or in a more nurturing environment.”
The Johnsons vacationed in Rome after the 2004 season, his seventh in Europe. Uncertain of whether or not to return for an eighth season, Johnson began to weigh his other options.
“I was thinking that maybe I’d come back to play, but I knew I probably wouldn’t,” he says. “I had stayed in touch with John [Thompson], and I figured I would ask him for advice on what my next step was. Camps? A high school job? When I called, he shared the news that he was going to Georgetown and asked if I wanted to join him. I said ‘yes’ right away, though not necessarily to him.”
With that Johnson began the transition from player to coach, and he did so under relatively intense circumstances.
“That is all accurate,” Thompson says. “He was getting to the end of his career and going through the process of figuring out what to do next. He said he wanted to get into coaching. I always thought that with Sydney’s understanding as a player that he would be a good coach some day. When I coupled that with his experiences professionally, I was confident that he’d be able to incorporate that into how we wanted to do things here.”
As Thompson began to turn the Hoyas back towards national prominence, Johnson continued his development as an integral part of the staff.
“It was a learning process for him,” says Georgetown’s Wallace. “Every year he put in a lot of extra work, a lot of extra time, to make himself a better coach. He watched a ton of film, not just of other teams but also of our team, to get to know us better. He played for Coach Thompson and you could see that they shared the same principles, but Coach Johnson is his own man. He had a lot of responsibility here, and that will carry over to Princeton. He’s going to be a fine head coach.”
The 2007 season was a magical one for the Hoyas, who won the Big East regular season and tournament championships and then earned a No. 2 seed in the East for the NCAA tournament. After an easy win over Belmont in the opening round, Georgetown pulled away from Boston College to reach the Sweet 16 at the Meadowlands.
In a span of 48 hours, Georgetown then played two epic games, rallying past Vanderbilt and finally top-seeded North Carolina in overtime to advance to the Final Four. The Hoyas, who came from 11 points down in the second half to knock off UNC, fell to Ohio State in the national semifinals in Atlanta.
“It was such a roller-coaster,” Johnson says. “I say that because of the crowd and the way the games played out. It was an emotional roller-coaster that we didn’t experience. We just stayed with our stuff. Coach Thompson believed in what we wanted to accomplish. To do it on that stage was remarkable.”
When the Princeton job came open after last season, Johnson’s name was quickly thrown around by anyone and everyone with a sense of the history of the program. The only question was one of experience.
“I was shocked Coach Scott was leaving,” Johnson says. “There was no kind of build up to it. I was just shocked when I saw it. I had concern for where our program was going. That’s the best thing about Princeton basketball, and it applies to Princeton lacrosse or soccer or anything else. It’s our program, and I wanted the best for us.
“I’m not sure if I was ready to be a head coach, but I wasn’t thinking like that. I think being a head coach at Princeton is different than being a head coach somewhere else. I know this place. I know I have stuff to learn, and I realize that. But I know this place, and I feel comfortable here. What I ask of our players and future recruits, I’m already done myself. For that reason, I thought I was ready to be the head coach at Princeton for sure.”
Johnson was hired on April 20th, and he and Jennifer moved their young children Jalen and Julia back to Princeton.
“I hadn’t been back to Princeton too often in 10 years,” he says. “I was always playing, so I couldn’t back during Reunions or anything. It was surreal. I’m not trying to be dramatic. So much had happened to me in 10 years, and yet I was coming home after so long of a time. I walked into Jadwin Gym and had all this nervous energy and it was immediately flushed out of me. Everything became familiar again.”
And then he started coaching, building his program his way.
“I had a great experience here,” he says. “I look at the guys I played with. Mitch [Henderson] doesn’t know this, but he’s one of my mentors. I look to him and admire him. Same with Gabe and James [Mastaglio] and [Jason] Osier and [Jesse] Rosenfeld and Goodrich and [Darren] Hite and Bones [Sean Gregory] and everyone I played with. We revel in each other’s successes. When someone has a kid, we all want to see the pictures and send a gift, which isn’t always a guy thing to do. We enjoy watching each other succeed. That’s what I want for my guys.
“Last year was great. We, and I’m still saying ‘we’ because I feel close to Georgetown, we had tremendous kids. They cared about basketball and did their school work and said ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ I was talking to Coach [Bill] Tierney [the men’s lacrosse coach] the other day, and I told him that I get kind of weepy, but at the end of the day you want to cheer for your players. You want to see them have success. That’s what was great about last year. I was cheering for them as I was coaching them.”
The bus pulls off the exit and settles at a rest stop near the Illinois-Wisconsin border. The doors open, and the Princeton men’s basketball team files off.
The Tigers have flown into O’Hare Airport and are now busing to Milwaukee, about 90 miles away, for the First Bank Classic.
It is December of 1996.
Sydney Johnson is the last one off the bus. He takes a quick glance at the fast food choices all around and makes his decision.
Almost everyone follows him.
No words are spoken. There is no need.
Sydney Johnson leads. Others follow.
Two nights later, Princeton defeats Marquette 66-62 in the championship game. Sydney Johnson, 4 for 9 from the foul line for the year prior to that, hits both ends of two one-and-ones in the final minute. Tiger centers Goodrich and Rosenfeld both foul out, and the game ends as the 6-4 Johnson is playing center, guarding future NBA player Chris Crawford, who stands 6-10.
Now it is almost 11 years later. Johnson is coaching his team. Watching him on the Jadwin court, you can see what he’s taken from Pete Carril, what he’s taken from John Thompson, what he’s taken from the coaches who coached him and the players who were his teammates.
It’s their program.
It’s his program.
It’s in good hands.
- by Jerry Price