I'm Your Guy: Avery Johnson introduced as Alabama's newest coachBy Sean Landry | 04/08/2015 10:35pm
Avery Johnson gave his first press conference as the new head coach of the basketball team on Wednesday. CW | Amellia Armstrong
Avery Johnson has seen the promised land for Alabama basketball.
It's in Durham, North Carolina, he said, and in Indianapolis last week and at the very end of the college basketball season, when March Madness has given way to April.
“For us here at The University of Alabama, I wouldn’t have taken this job if we couldn’t make it to the Final Four,” Johnson said at his introductory press conference. “I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t see and have a vision of how we could get to the Final Four and have an opportunity to win a championship. Duke University, that’s the standard for us here at The University of Alabama and our basketball program. The way they play defense and offense, the way they move the ball, that’s the standard. Nobody else is the standard, that’s the standard – Duke University. That’s why I’m here.”
Johnson comes to Alabama with no prior college coaching experience, and wasn’t Alabama’s first choice. That was Gregg Marshall, who, after negotiating with Alabama, signed an extension at Wichita State University. But according to Athletic Director Bill Battle, that doesn’t mean Johnson isn’t his guy.
“Fairly late into the process, we got word that Avery Johnson might be interested in our job,” Battle said. “I called a few of my friends who had been lifers in NCAA basketball, who have been around it and who know everything about everybody. I asked them to tell me about this guy. To his character as a person, they started off by saying, ‘Wow, he has impeccable character, integrity and reputation. He has great basketball knowledge as a player and a coach. He is an outstanding teacher, mentor and leader of young people. He has strong family values and relentless work ethic.’”
The former Dallas resident said his lack of college experience won’t hold Alabama back in his earliest seasons. As a former NBA champion player, coach of the year for the Dallas Mavericks, broadcaster for ESPN and NCAA record holder, Johnson said his name recognition is as good or better than most coaches in the SEC.
“A lot of our opponents or critics, and I know that Coach Battle probably got this from some people about, Coach Avery has never coached college, how is he going to recruit,” Johnson said. “He has never coached in college. Well here is what I would say: When Coach Avery Johnson walks into a recruit’s living room, they recognize Coach Avery Johnson on some level. Whether it’s the kid, the AAU coach, the high school coach or the parent, somebody recognizes Coach Avery and his New Orleans accent from TV. Somebody recognizes Coach Avery from being Coach of the Year on the highest level in the NBA. Somebody recognizes Coach Avery from coaching in the NBA Finals in 2006. Somebody recognizes Coach Avery from having a 16-year NBA career where he basically came in the back door because he was undrafted. Somebody recognizes Coach Avery because nobody has led the NCAA in assists one year, averaging 13.3 assists. So those are great qualifications, and if you want to make it to the next level as an NBA player, I’m your guy.”
Johnson has already started those recruiting trips, and not alone. Johnson said one of the first decisions he made as Alabama coach was to retain assistant coach and Alabama alumnus Antoine Pettway.
“When I first took over, Coach Battle talked to me about Pett,” Johnson said. "When he left my home in Dallas, or Plano, I started asking around about Pett and for the most part out of every 10 people, all 10 people gave him rave reviews. And then I had a chance to meet him, talked on the phone a lot and then got a chance to meet him and meet his wife, that secured his situation.”
Pettway will offer connections to the Alabama high school and AAU scene. He’s consistently rated as one of the top recruiters in the state by Rivals, and AL.com reports he has a strong relationship with current Alabama Mr. Basketball Dazon Ingram.
“To every recruit in the state of Alabama, to every high-level recruit in this state, you’re our first target. We want to put a fence around the state of Alabama," Johnson said. "Yes we would love to go and recruit some of the high-level, blue-chip players outside of this state, but the state of Alabama and its high school players and AAU players, you are our priority. To every high school coach and every AAU coach in the state of Alabama, you are our priority. You are our first priority, and I want to get to know you. To all of the moms and dads, and uncles and aunts, that represent these student-athletes in the state of Alabama, we want to get to know you. You are our first priority. For all of the recruits outside of the state of Alabama, you’re also on our radar. We’re taking this program to places it has never been before.”
Johnson said he knows he isn’t the only – or even the biggest – show on campus, but he isn’t cowed by the stature of Alabama football. In fact, he said he thinks coach Nick Saban will be one of his most important supporters.
“Coach Saban with his personality and all of his success, that doesn’t scare me; it’s like a magnet for me,” he said. “I’ve had my own success. I’ve gone a lot of places a lot of coaches haven’t gone before. And I have my own personality. So a guy like Coach Saban, that is one of the things that attracted me to The University of Alabama... I’m very close to [New Orleans Saints coach] Sean Peyton; he’s one of my best friends from the New Orleans Saints football team. I’ve been involved with that football team as an unpaid consultant, by the way, since 2006. So I’m a huge football fan. So the fans are going to see me at the games and Coach Saban said he would give me opportunities to come and sit in on some of his sessions, or stop by practice, just like I did with the Saints. I was fortunate to get the New Orleans Saints their speech Super Bowl morning 2009 before we beat the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl. So I’m a huge football fan, and that was one of the things that attracted me to The University of Alabama.”
The New Orleans native inherited a program that has a below -.500 record in the SEC for two seasons, with flagging attendance and dwindling fan interest. Rather than a detriment, Johnson said he sees that as a perk.
“For this situation, I didn’t want to go anywhere where they’ve won a national championship or perennial favorites or got to the Final Four and turned out all of these great one-and-done players, first-round picks,” Johnson said. “From a challenge standpoint, this is a big challenge. And guys, every step of the way in my career, when I faced a challenge for the most part, I almost always made the situation better than prior to me getting there.”
Intentionally or not, Johnson found himself echoing the one coach whose legacy looms larger on campus than any other. When Paul W. “Bear” Bryant was asked why he left Texas A&M for Alabama, his alma mater, he famously said “Momma called. And when Momma calls, you just have to come runnin'.” Alabama may not be “momma” to the Southern University graduate, but Johnson said the pull of the program is just the same.
“When The University of Alabama calls, you take the phone call,” Johnson said. “Let me repeat that, when The University of Alabama calls – when Coach Bill Battle calls – you pick up the phone. And that’s what I did, and I’m glad I did.”