by John Torsiello
When Ed Cooley decided to leave the Fairfield University men’s basketball team to coach at Providence College after the 2010-11 season, there may have been some nervousness among fans and alumni of the Stags.
After all, Cooley had built the Fairfield men’s hoops program into a solid winner, one that posted 25 victories last season, captured the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season title, and won entry to the National Invitational Tournament.
No worries. The man who replaced Cooley, Sydney Johnson, brought to Fairfield an impeccable resume, and is a man deeply committed to the University, its ideals, and the continued success of the men’s basketball team.
Johnson, the 12th coach in the Stags’ men’s basketball history, spent the previous four years as head coach of his alma mater, Princeton University. He led the Tigers to the 2010-11 Ivy League title, winning 25 games, securing a berth in the NCAA Tournament and nearly upsetting powerhouse Kentucky before losing by two points in the game’s final seconds.
Johnson, the Ivy League Player of the Year at Princeton in 1997 and a former professional player in Italy, turned around the Tigers’ program in four years, winning six games his first season as head coach, 13 the next season, and 20 the year after that, before leading Princeton to last year’s stellar accomplishments. He is widely considered one of the brightest and most talented young coaches in the NCAA by several sources.
“I think Sydney exhibits all the qualities of a successful head coach,” said Fairfield University Athletics Director Gene Doris when Johnson was hired. “He embraces the Jesuit philosophy, which is the cornerstone of Fairfield University, and exhibits a clear understanding of the University’s mission. He places a strong value on academics, which is evident in the success his student-athletes have achieved in the classroom.”
It certainly wasn’t an easy choice for Johnson to leave his beloved alma mater and the most successful men’s basketball program in the Ivy League to take over the Stags. But it is a new mission he embraces wholeheartedly. He is bursting with enthusiasm and believes he has found a new home at Fairfield. The Johnson family — wife, Jennifer, and two young children — have settled in well in the Fairfield area and are “getting close to having a set routine,” he added.
“I’m thrilled from the standpoint of this being a very great opportunity for me. I went to school at Princeton and coached there and had always been so impressed by the value the school places on academics and athletics,” he said. “Here, at Fairfield, that commitment to excellence in both fields is just as strong. I look at the students here, the academics, the Jesuit tradition, the basketball tradition and the administration’s commitment to the program and I just hope that I can measure up to the standards the University has set.”
Johnson doesn’t view himself as a coach who will necessarily pound his personal stamp on the basketball program. He has his beliefs, his own way of coaching. But he sees himself as more of a caretaker of the history his coaching predecessors and Stag players have established before him.
“Coach Cooley did an amazing job in the five years he was here. But whether it is Coach Cooley or the coaches that came before him it is a continuum, and you have to understand that. We all bring something to the table. I’m not going to go out of my way to establish who I am. I’m very comfortable in my own skin and I’m at a school that believes in me. I’m going to cherish that fact. I’m here to help the kids achieve both on the court and off.”
Johnson, who also coached at Georgetown University under John Thompson III, where he helped guide the Hoyas to the program’s first Final Four in 22 years, believes his task at Fairfield is two-fold.
“I am very exacting in how I want our young men to be off the court. I want them to represent the University well, be humble and eager to learn, and do well in the classroom. I want them to develop as great men. I’m very demanding with that.”
Johnson likes to empower his players to make their own decisions, create their own sense of a unit on the floor…if it fits within the framework of TEAM.
“My playing days are over, so the best gift that I can give to my players is to allow them to express themselves on the court. I want them to make their own music together out there I’ll give them that freedom as long as they do it within the team concept.”
To that end, Johnson and his staff stress defense, a communal effort to prevent the other team from scoring, or even bringing the ball up court for that matter.
“We will defend extremely hard, create as many turnovers as we can and get out on the fast break. In the half court offense we need to execute. I’ve always believed in that as have my assistant coaches.”
As to how many players will figure in the rotation, Johnson says their talent and readiness will dictate that.
“It depends on the players. I have had teams where we ran guys in and out and we went only six guys deep at times at Georgetown. You can’t dictate a player’s readiness to play meaningful minutes.”
Ed Cooley certainly didn’t leave the cupboard bare for Johnson. Fairfield has loads of talent and has been touted as one of the Mid-Major teams to keep an eye on this season and a MAAC favorite. Sophomore Derek Needham’14 (All-MAAC) is considered one of the nation’s top point guards; 7-foot junior center Ryan Olander ’13 (Second Team All-MAAC) is a huge presence inside; senior transfer Rakim Sanders ’12 is ready to go after sitting out last season following his departure from Boston College, where he was a double-figure scorer each of his three seasons with the Eagles; and junior guard Desmond Wade ’13, a transfer from the University of Houston, brings his unique talents to the table.
“There is no question we have a talented team,” said Johnson. “We have a nice mix of perimeter and inside players and guys who are experienced. Our greatest challenge is going to be our mental toughness and our team togetherness, especially when playing elite teams.”
He added, “People are paying attention to Fairfield now and they have certainly noticed us. But the most crucial step we must take is being mature as a team during league play, into the MAAC tournament and hopefully beyond.”
The backing the University’s administration has shown to the men’s basketball team and athletics in general pleases Johnson.
“It is nice to be somewhere where you don’t have to convince people of the value of athletics and how it enriches the University community. Fairfield has progressed to the point where we have a real commitment to and appreciation of athletics, and it is not just basketball. Athletics brings an identity to the school and enhances the overall experience of college for the students. I was lucky that I played important games in college in front of packed arenas and I had the chance to play professionally. I want those same experiences badly for my players. I want them to soak up that experience.”
Johnson is also concerned with the direction big time college sports is taking, where it seems every other day schools jump from conference to conference in search of lucrative television contracts and greater exposure.
“The one thing I’m most concerned about is that our kids not get spread too thin. Playing a game in the Midwest and then having them back in the classroom the next day is difficult. But I don’t think beginning new relationships with schools and conferences and having new opportunities is necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes new rivalries can become deeper and more meaningful than old ones. As long as all that stuff comes a close second to academics, the welfare of the student-athlete and the mission of the school we will be all right.”
“We want good young men who will be humble and unselfish on the court,” he went on. “Young men who want to represent their families, their high school programs, and Fairfield. We are going to go anywhere we can, all over the country, overseas, and right in our own back yard, to recruit. If a kid can really play and is a real good person, we will look at him.”
The Sydney Johnson Era at Fairfield has begun. It should be an interesting ride.
Birthplace: Lansing, Mi.
Head coaching record with
• Collegeinsider.com Ivy League Coach of the Year in 2008-09, 2009-10.
• Assistant coach for three years at Georgetown University, where he helped the Hoyas win 30 games, the Big East regular season and tournament titles, and reach the Final Four in 2007.
• Captained Princeton men’s basketball team three seasons. He was All-Ivy League 1995-96 and 1996-97, and Ivy League Player of the Year in 1997.
• Played for Glorizia Pallacanestro in Italy and helped the team win the Italian Second Division championship.