In his sixth season as a head coach and his ninth season in coaching after a prolific playing career at Princeton, Fairfield head coach Sydney Johnson earned his 100th victory with a 61-54 win over St. Peter’s Sunday.
Johnson is 100-78 over six seasons at two schools. He is 34-25 at Fairfield after going 66-53 at Princeton and winning an Ivy League title.
He said he did not even know that Sunday was his 100th victory until friends from Princeton texted him congratulating him on the milestone.
“A couple of buddies of mine from Princeton texted me back on our drive from St. Peter’s to congratulate me,” Johnson said. “It was a nice bonus but 2-0 in the league is obviously a lot more important.”
Johnson’s journey began at Princeton as a student-athlete. He was one of the most heralded players in Princeton basketball history and the only three-time captain. His 1,044 points puts him 27th all time on the Princeton scoring list. He ranks sixth all-time in the Tigers record book with both 162 three pointers made and 280 assists to go with first all-time with 169 steals.
One of Johnson’s teammates, Brian Earl, said that he was impressed how Johnson was a lock down defender.
“He was completely selfless,” Earl said. “He tried to get other guys the ball as much as possible, and for someone who liked to shoot, it was great.”
“Down on the other end, for someone like me who wasn’t as good defensively as him, he just took the pressure off of the team. You knew that the other team was going to be playing without their best player that night.”
Johnson’s 1995-96 team won the Ivy League tiebreaker game against Penn to make the NCAA Tournament. Pete Carril’s 510th win at Princeton wouldn’t have come without Johnson on the court. He managed to deliver the dagger three-pointer from the right wing to put the Tigers up for good in the championship playoff game. His three gave the Tigers a 57-54 lead, which they would hold onto for a 63-56 overtime over Penn .
From there Johnson and Princeton helped give coach Pete Carril earn his final victory, a 43-41 win in the NCAA Tournament over UCLA, where he scored a team-high 10 points.
Johnson was twice named to the All-Ivy League First Team and was the 1997 Ivy League Player of the Year despite being tied for fourth on the team with 9.2 points per game.
Georgetown head coach John Thompson III, who was an assistant at Princeton when Johnson played, said he earned player of the year because of how much opponents respected his defense.
“We played almost all man to man,” Thompson said of Johnson’s senior season. “He always guarded the opposition’s best player unless it was a center. Their one, two, three or four he guarded opposite team’s best player and not once that entire year, did whoever he was guarding, score their average.”
After his playing career at Princeton concluded, Johnson finished his finals and set off for Italy to begin a seven-year playing career.
“I picked up as much playing overseas in seven years as I did in college in four,” Johnson said of his time overseas. “It’s a shot clock, pick and roll, pro mentality of just being good in practices and games. The expectation to be good every time you take the floor. The fact that as a pro you work on the craft above and beyond what you do in college.”
“All those things were very valuable to me not only in terms of coaching the game and also helping players develop a mentality of a really good player and mentality of a player who might play himself as a pro. Those were very good years for me to learn not only how to be a good professional, but also to be able to help guys when I’ve moved on into a coaching career.”
When asked in 1998 about his ambitions after pro basketball, Johnson hinted that coaching might be in his future.
Question: What are your future ambitions? I remember [Pete] Carril once said that he thought [Sydney Johnson] could do anything if he wanted to. That’s pretty high praise for a tough guy to impress; what does SJ want to do with all the potential. Politics? Business? Sports (coaching?)???
Johnson: I hate the word potential. It has the connotation that one hasn’t quite achieved anything but that everybody is quietly waiting around for you to fulfill their predictions (Coach Carill told me that). I prefer to look at my future as unfinished business. What I mean is that I have been blessed with a Princeton degree, a successful college basketball career and some good times here in Italy. I also have some great friends in this world and my family is safe and doing fine. For that reason, I feel that it is high time for me to start giving back to the world which has given a lot to me. I don’t see politics and/or business in the future; I can’t see myself helping people the way I hope to in either of those two fields. In good time (once I am done with this basketball “experiment” over here), I hope to teach and coach to help kids and young adults reach their respective goals.”
After winning a league title for Siena (Italy) in 2004, Johnson began to think about giving up on his pro career. Throughout his pro career, he kept in touch with Thompson who had just been named the Georgetown head coach after he led Princeton to the NCAA Tournament.
Thompson was looking for a third assistant and said he was trying to convince Johnson to hang up his sneakers from pro basketball in Europe to join his staff.
“As soon as I got this job, I went to work trying to convince him that it was time for him to retire,” Thompson said. “I knew I was going to get a person who was going to work their behind off. Someone that would be able to teach the game as well as relate to the kids as well as understand all the nuances of the job.”
Johnson, at the same time, was looking to make his move back to the United States and get into coaching.
“I was playing overseas, but I was thinking about shutting it down and I definitely wanted to go into coaching,” Johnson said. “I didn’t have any idea that I was going into college. It was more like high school, learn the craft, work my way up but we did remain close while I was playing and he was coaching at Princeton and he had that opening. He saw some potential in me and he definitely took a chance and I’m just grateful. I don’t know what to say, I’m just incredibly grateful.”
Johnson was thrown right into the fire as an assistant, expected to be able to do everything from scouting to recruiting. In Johnson’s second and third seasons at Georgetown, he and Thompson were part of teams that made the Sweet 16 and Final Four respectively. However, Johnson said that Thompson’s ability to be there for his players and family is what impressed him the most throughout his three years at Georgetown.
“His wife Monica was diagnosed with breast cancer and it was a real concern. It was the real deal, where she had to have operations and see doctors and tremendous amount of turmoil in terms of making sure she was healthy and he was going to the hospital. This is a man that probably sleeps about four or five hours a night at the most. I think he was waking up and he was going to the hospital. I remember one practice in particular where we had started practice and where about five minutes in and he literally walked into the gym and you can tell he had come straight from the hospital, straight from his car, literally walked in, caught what we were doing and five seconds that he walked in went right into coaching.”
“To me it was the mark of the man where he was being a great husband and a great father and then was good enough to walk in the gym and be an elite college basketball coach where he kind of took things over and got us going and helped us win games that year. His ability to be there for his wife and to be there for his players, I’ll never forget that. It was like he was in the zone, I don’t know how he did it but he definitely did it.”
After Georgetown made the Final Four, Johnson took over the Princeton head-coaching job from the departed Joe Scott.
Kyle Koncz, who played for Johnson in his senior season, said it was apparent how much his new head coach cared about his players.
“One thing that stuck out to me the most was how passionate he was and how much he cared about our program and our team,” Koncz said. “I think from the first meeting that we had with him, just listening to him talk and even afterwards talking to our teammates, it was just he cared about the program and I could tell.”
“It was the first time I met him but I could tell he was a coach that really cared about his guys, really cared about how well we did on the court, how well they did off the court and how well they did in the future.”
Marcus Schroeder, who played for Johnson for three of his four years at Princeton, said when he first met Johnson he was impressed by Johnson’s presence.
“The first time I met him, I was just so impressed,” Schroeder said. “His command of the room, I feel like he demanded respect from us and then he also respected us so much that it was hard for us not to respect him.”
“He really respected how hard we played and he really cared for his players, he really wanted us to do well. He was involved with us in our personal lives, he cared about how our families were doing, he cared about our academics. It wasn’t just basketball which is one thing that I’ve always admired about him.”
When Johnson reached Princeton as head coach he contacted his old teammate Earl to come on as an assistant. The two had been in touch over the years and when Earl got the call from Johnson he decided to leave his job at Sallie Mae to start a coaching career.
“It was a little bit of a surprising call, but he said he wanted me to come up and talk to me and a couple weeks later I was on staff,” Earl said.
In his first game as head coach, Johnson had the Tigers at home against Central Connecticut and he said he was nervous prior to the tip.
“I know I was nervous,” Johnson said. “I think I was nervous. Just the start of a journey that’s how I looked at it. Even if I was to coach a single year I knew that seasons are long, there are a lot of ups and downs and not to get too high.”
“Once the game started, I just went back to my instincts, it was almost like playing a game. Right before you jump ball you have some butterflies but plays start to be made, officials start to make calls, shots go down, turnovers, free throws, all that. You just got caught up in playing and I know I settled down but walking on the court for the first time I was probably nervous as I’ve been in a long time.”
Those nerves were aided by a victory in his debut, a 57-55 win over Central Connecticut. However, Johnson received a surprise visit after the game from his mentor, Thompson.
“He completely surprised me,” Johnson said of Thompson appearing at the game.
“Honestly, it’s something I’ll never forget for my lifetime,” Johnson said. “He was my coach, he was my mentor and now he’s become one of my best friends in the game. It was just really touching, even now it just makes me smile all the support he’s shown me, support for me and all the other guys he’s befriended.”
The Tigers managed to win their first two games; however, Princeton absorbed a 12-game losing streak that tested Johnson’s resolve for the first time in his young head-coaching career.
“It was extremely tough,” Johnson said. “I try to push our guys to be mentally tough, I try to take that approach. My dad influenced me a lot and then I had great coaches in high school, prep school and college that really push me that you can bend but you can’t break but when you’re losing 12 games at the school that you played for, that you love so much, that you love the basketball program, I was carrying that as much as anything.”
“I had great players, guys that I enjoyed working with on a daily basis and they kind of helped me see the light at the end of the tunnel and we started to improve from one year to the next.”
Schroeder said that he remembered a tough stretch of practices after their 53-32 loss at Evansville, their sixth in the 12-game losing streak.
“The next day we flew back, we got off the plane, came back to school and we practiced then for like 2-2.5 hours which I thought was crazy,” Schroeder said. “Then the next morning we came back and practiced around 4:30 or 5 a.m. It was a three hour practice and it was really tough. We were all dead tired.”
“It wasn’t the fact that we lost to Evansville, but it was the fact that we didn’t give great effort. That’s what he was pissed about and that’s why we had a tough practice.”
Princeton finished 6-23 in Johnson’s first season as head coach. Exiting senior Koncz said that despite the six-win season, he felt the program was in good hands.
“As much as we lost that year, I felt like we were in a lot of games,” Koncz said. “I think knowing the guys and seeing it throughout the year, I think they started to see how much coach Johnson put into the program and how much he cared.”
“I didn’t know when it was going to happen, but I knew great things were going to happen there. Just the way he goes about his business, how much he cares about the program and how much he cares about the players that usually leads to good things, and it definitely happened.”
Schroeder said that he felt that a turning point in Johnson’s tenure was when they won seven in a row in Johnson’s second season. The first win was over UNC Greensboro, followed by a win over Lehigh and led to a 4-0 start to Ivy League play.
“I feel like that was when we really started to believe we could win,” Schroder said. “We went into games expecting to win, from there we started out 4-0 in the league we actually ended up 8-6, but it was baby steps for us.”
“We tied for second and we really turned it around that second half of the season. Senior year we built off that, had a good non-conference and then in the conference we were pretty good.
Schroeder’s senior year, Johnson’s third year at Princeton, the Tigers won 22 games finishing second to Cornell who went to the Sweet 16.
“We felt like we had steered the program back in the right direction,” Schroeder said. “We knew that Princeton has a rich tradition and coach Johnson really talked about that and I know he really wanted to restore the program and that’s exactly what he did.”
The Tigers also received a postseason invite that season to the third ever College Basketball Invitational, where they won two games and reached the semifinals before falling to St. Louis 69-59.
In his final season as Tigers head coach, Johnson’s team faced an Ivy League championship tiebreaker against Harvard at Yale.
Because Johnson and Earl had already being a part of a tiebreaker as a players, they were able to take that experience into the one-game playoff.
“As a coach, I just felt very comfortable in that playoff game against Harvard because I had been there, I could call on that experience,” Johnson said. “[Earl] and I had shared the court, we were teammates when we were in that playoff game in ’96.”
“I think there was an inner confidence like, ‘hey we’ve done this we know what it means.’ It’s going to be possession by possession, we shared that with the guys and we also said, ‘you can handle everything that’s come your way’ and the guys did that literally to the point where it was a one-possession game down the stretch. Thankfully we made the last shot.”
That final shot to decide the NCAA tournament came from Doug Davis off a play that Earl and Johnson discussed during the timeout. It was an idea the team had never practiced before.
“I try and watch film and try and watch college basketball games,” Johnson said of the final play design. “[It was] something I’d seen on TV, half of the play was that and half of it was something that Brian Earl was talking about in the timeout.”
“He brought that idea and I remembered an idea of something I liked when I watched a game so I kind of put the two together. It was a spur of the moment out of bounds play, it wasn’t anything necessarily that we had worked on, but we did know the key players we wanted to be involved. We had three or four options and we got them all involved and then it found a way to Doug Davis and he probably made the biggest shot of his life.”
Earl said Johnson was being nice saying he helped contribute to the play, but said the way that Johnson takes information in from his assistants to the huddle always impressed him.
“I mentioned trying to get some back screens to see how Harvard was going to guard that,” Earl said. “He headed into the huddle and drew up the other side which was a back screen for Doug Davis who eventually got the pass and hit the jumper.”
“It was indicative of the way we work. He listens to everything and then drew the play up. He’s always the guy who’s listening to all the ideas and then bringing clarity to the guys when he’s talking to them in the huddle.”
The 63-62 victory gave Princeton the Ivy League title for the first time since 2004. Winning the Ivy League championship brought Johnson back to a familiar position, playing a traditional power in the NCAA Tournament. This time it was Kentucky.
As a 13-seed again, battling against fourth-seeded Kentucky, Princeton built up a 44-39 lead with 12:14 remaining. Kareem Maddox and Dan Mavraides hit shots to help the Tigers to erase a four-point deficit with 38 seconds left. But Brandon Knight’s layup with two seconds remaining gave Kentucky a 59-57 edge and a heave from half court didn’t go in.
Eighteen days after that loss, Johnson signed a six-year deal to move to MAAC member Fairfield.
Senior Derek Needham said that his first impression of Johnson was that he was a guy players could relate to.
“We could tell he was a player’s coach,” Needham said. “We knew that he expected a lot from us and he told us he would never give up on us. That was very great to hear.”
Redshirt senior Desmond Wade, who sat out Ed Cooley’s final season at Fairfield after transferring from Houston, said that it took him a bit of time to get used to Johnson’s Princeton offense.
“My main adjustment was just his style of play,” Wade said. “I came from Houston where we kind of ran it up and down, run and gun offense. Cooley was a little different we ran and gun a little bit but it was more set plays then he came in with Princeton offense so it was just a little adjustment.”
Johnson said in the past that he felt like he tweaked what Ed Cooley had done in his first season. This season, having brought in five freshmen and two transfers to the roster, Johnson said he feels like this team more reflects what he wants to do.
After losing three in a row in January, the Stags rebounded by winning eight out of their next nine games. However Fairfield lost Needham for the season with a broken foot in their second to last regular season game against Iona.
“The first person to come up to me was Rakim [Sanders],” Needham said. “He told me he had it, he’ll take care of it.”
“It was just hard to watch from always being on the court to knowing you can barely jump or run it was very tough but I think my team did a great job.”
The Stags beat top-seeded Iona to advance to the MAAC finals where they lost 48-44 to Loyola (MD). When Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos met to shake hands with Johnson, he said he told Johnson how much he respected the job he did in his first season.
“I just think he did a great job this year, we were lucky to beat him and I said what a great job you did coaching,” Patsos said. “I had voted for him for coach of the year.”
“I thought he walked into a situation, Ed Cooley was this very successful coach and he left and everybody was looking around. They had their bumps and bruises but he kept them on track and they played really well at the end.”
Needham, picked first team All-MAAC this year in the preseason, said that he had to adjust to how the offensive movement changed from Johnson’s first year to second year.
“We were used to ball screens and now it’s more big guys come to the elbows and controlling the pace of the game a little bit and with the guards in the corners,” Needham said.
In December Johnson’s contract was extended two more years, until the 2018-19 season. Johnson said he leans a lot on the senior leadership group of Needham, Wade and Colin Nickerson.
“We carry the load pretty well,” Needham said. “We all try to deliver his message just in different ways. I’m more vocal with it, Desmond is more one-on-one pull guys to the side and Colin’s more show everybody how it’s done.”
“When we mess up in practice as seniors he looks to us so the freshmen and sophomores know not to do the same mistakes we do,” Wade said. “In practice if we close out wrong or we turn the ball over he wants us to be kind of perfect in the fact that we got to lead the team to victories.”
“We’ve got to lead the team so when we do something bad, we’ll be the first ones to hear it and we respect him because we know what we have to do and we feel like for us to win and for us to go far in the season and in the tournament our seniors got to lead.”
The New Year has proved to be difficult for the Stags, who lost five straight MAAC games to drop to 2-6 after a loss to Loyola (MD) at home on January 21st.
Needham said that the Stags needed to clean up the little things after losing four of five games by five points or less.
“We weren’t losing games by a lot of points,” Needham said. “It was the little things we were doing like not boxing out, or not getting a loose ball, or turning it over late so we knew we could have easily won four of those games.”
Wade said that in practice, Johnson preached to keep grinding in practice and the turnaround would come.
“He was just telling us to keep playing hard,” Wade said. “Keep executing. keep playing defense, keep following scout and everything will be well and these last couple games have been good to us.”
The Stags stopped the five-game losing streak, the longest during Johnson’s tenure at Fairfield, with wins over Marist and St. Peter’s that put the Stags at 12-10 and their coach over the century mark. The Stags have won nine of their 12 games on the road this season.
Johnson said the difference between playing and coaching in a game is that as a player he felt more in control of the game.
“I could control a lot more,” Johnson said of playing as opposed to coaching. “I took pride in that and my teammates did too. I mean we were players, we wanted to get after it we lost games and all that but we also won our fair share and it was because we worked at it.”
“As a coach, you have to prepare so much for before and after and then you really have to trust and turn it over to your guys. I think that’s the big difference. You have to find guys that you trust that you believe will attack the game like you did.”
Players, past and present characterized Johnson as “responsible, focused and disciplined.”
“He’s going to tell you straight up how it is,” Needham said describing him as responsible. “He’s going to make sure everybody is accountable but he looks at himself first to be accountable.”
“He wants us to focus on every possession, he wants us to focus on and off the court,” Wade said. “In practice we have to be focused, watching film we have to be focused, we got to focus in the classroom, we got to focus on the court.”
“I always studied him,” Schroeder said. “He probably doesn’t know that but I would just watch him and study him a little bit and anywhere he was, anything he did.”
“He always gave his best effort and he really preached discipline to us and I watched him interact with his children. I can really see how disciplined he was as a coach, as a father, as a husband.”
Johnson said he keeps in touch with Thompson throughout the season and that he will see fellow Princeton alumni on the recruiting trail and talk to them during the summer.
“During the season the one name guy that I keep in touch with is John Thompson III,” Johnson said. “That’s who I’m leaning on and that’s who I’m keeping close with.”
Thompson said that the last time he talked to Johnson was two weeks ago but that he continually uses Johnson as a resource throughout the year.
“He is someone that I use as a sounding board, as a resource to this day,” Thompson said of Johnson. “He has an unbelievable basketball mind.”
While Johnson is keeping close with Thompson, he brought Earl on as an assistant for his first job. Earl said he stays in touch with Johnson with texts throughout the year.
Former Princeton players like Koncz and Schroeder have kept in touch with Johnson as they look to climb the coaching ladder.
Koncz spent the first three seasons after graduation coaching at a Chicago high school for and getting involved with an AAU program. Johnson helped him move into the collegiate level.
“I had the opportunity to go coach at Williams College with Mike Maker,” Koncz said. “Coach Johnson was my biggest reference for that position. He called coach Maker up and helped me get that position which was great for me to be able to step up into the college ranks. Coach Johnson was a big reason why I was able to get that job.”
In August, Johnson hired Koncz himself as Fairfield’s Director of Basketball Operations.
“He offered me a position here and I was more than willing to take it,” Koncz said. “Even though it was only one year I played for Coach Johnson, being in contact with him for three or four years, seeing the things that he did at Princeton and talking to guys that I played with my senior year were freshmen those guys that won the Ivy League championship in the playoff game their senior year.”
“Talking with him and talking with the guys and knowing how he coached them, when I was offered the opportunity to coach with him here at Fairfield, I didn’t want to pass it up because he’s a great coach and a great person.”
When asked what word would be used to define who Johnson is, Thompson said “a winner.”
“Just because he is. Whatever he’s in he’s going to be a success.”
Ryan Restivo covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo.