The following is an email conversation that took place yesterday between myself and my esteemed colleague, Sir Wesley Willis:
Lyle Lanley: So it appears we have a new basketball coach- Trent Johnson, who comes over from a four-year stint at LSU that produced...mixed results. A lot of Frog fans had hopes of bringing Jamie Dixon home from Pittsburgh, or landing some other big-name coach that would produce a big splash to immediately create excitement and momentum for our sleepy little program. It's remarkable just how dry I feel due to the lack of splash with this hire.
Sir Wesley Willis: I'll definitely have to agree with you there - Johnson is not the name anyone expected to see emerge from this process, and he's not the most inspiring. The fact that absolutely NO ONE saw it coming has to raise a few red flags. Part of the reason no one looked to Johnson is because most of our fans expected CDC to money-whip Dixon into returning home. Basically, unless TCU was willing to double his salary and commit to him for 10+ years, it wasn't happening. So here we are. But let me ask you - as cold as the hiring leaves you, would you have been more inspired by a lower level, local guy like Johnny Jones or Scott Cross? Or, better yet, would you rather be SMU who is offering gobs and gobs of money at all suitors and getting treated like they have the plague? 4 turndowns and counting!! Johnson isn't going to ignite the fan base like Dixon would, but CDC snatched him up in a HURRY so there has to be something there. Let's give me a chance.
LL: Oh, I'm all for giving him a chance. Hell, I gave Dougherty and Christian more chances than they probably deserved. It's kind of like when someone you didn't vote for is elected president- unless you're a complete political dork who is only interested in your team beating the other team, you realize that we could all prosper if this guy does well once he's on the job. But you and I talked last week about the importance of this hire and how Del Conte was in a unique position with the timing of it. TCU is moving to a new conference with much higher risks and equally elevated rewards for success. It would seem, at least to me, that a recipe for success would be hiring someone who could awaken our fanbase and send the more wealthy among them reaching for their wallets to contribute to a badly-needed new arena. I'm not saying I expected us to hire Billy Donovan away from Florida or anything like that, but those back-to-back 11 win seasons Johnson posted at LSU just scream "more of the same" to me.
SWW: Clearly in the "what have you done for me lately?" world of sports, the biggest issue our fanbase is going to have with Johnson is the fact that LSU was so giddy to see him leave. But think about his first head coaching job- at the time, Nevada was arguably worse than TCU is at present. They hadn't made the NCAA Tourney in 15 seasons and hadn't made a post-season run of any kind for 3 years before that. In each season in charge of the Pack, Johnson increased his win/loss record, took them to the NIT in year three and in his fourth and final season led the team to the Sweet 16 of the NCAAs, still their greatest ever basketball season. He then took over a well established Stanford team and never missed the post season, once again making the Sweet 16 in year four. It's also worth mentioning that the Cardinal have not received an NCAA bid since TJ left campus. As much as his LSU tenure has been maligned, he took the Tigers to the NCAA tourney in year one and the NIT just this past year. Even if he only stays at TCU 4 years and makes the post-season in 2, that represents a MASSIVE step forward for the program. Beggars can't be choosers, but methinks Johnson is a little bit brighter of a prospect than we want to give him credit for.
LL: I hear what you're saying about his time at Nevada and Stanford, but it's still hard to overlook the two Dougherty-esque 11 win seasons he had in Baton Rouge. To create a TCU-related football analogy, Dennis Franchione was once the hottest name in college football because of the turnarounds he had constructed at New Mexico and here in Fort Worth. But look at the caliber of program that wanted him in his post-A&M days. Do we really want to be the Texas State football of the college basketball world? The internet is flooded with LSU fans expressing joy that Johnson is out as the Tigers' head coach, and even the level-headed fans of theirs that I talked to said they were relieved that they hadn't had to fire him and that they would be able to start over with someone fresh. Think of when Mike Schultz left TCU to become Illinois' offensive coordinator, and how happy most Frog fans were to be rid of him.
SWW: First of all, comparing TJ to Schultz is seriously the meanest thing you could say about the man and if he's reading this I'm apologizing to him in advance for your awful words. I think there's a good enough track record there to at least give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the TCU job. You point to the positive reaction of LSU fans in response to this hiring, but watch THIS video and tell me how you feel about LSU fans and their expectations. A lot LSU fans want Les Miles' head because Jordan Jefferson - the QB that the FANS wanted, mind you - was a disaster and Les couldn't fix him. So I'm not sure how much credit we should give those cajuns when it comes to formulating rational thoughts. Johnson and LSU clearly were not the fit the Tigers hoped they would be when they doubled his salary and brought him down from Stanford. That much is obvious. When Johnson came in, LSU was fresh off of a football national championship, was on the road to another one in baseball and were only two years removed from making the Final Four. To say that athletic expectations were sky high would be an understatement. LSU isn't a basketball school, they just wanted to believe they were because Florida was having their cake and eating it too with their basketball/football combo. But whereas LSU fans were clamoring for deep NCAA runs or else, at TCU all we'd realistically expect out of Johnson for the next 3-4 years is to post winning records, gain an NIT bid or two and make it a couple of rounds deep in the Big 12 tourney. And if he were to take us to the NCAAs, give him a lifetime contract. We're not asking him to beat Kansas, Texas, West Virginia and Baylor twice every year- we just want a product that doesn't get beat by 30 points in conference play and one that at least teases us with post-season ambitions. If he can do that, we can increase the expectations accordingly from there. That's it. Seriously.
LL: You make a good point about the expectations being lower at TCU than they are at LSU, but should they be? I'm not saying that we should be demanding Final Four runs every 2-3 years and be assholes if we don't get them, but I also think we should shed the concept of "we're just TCU" and that we've accepted our place as an afterthought in the college basketball world. That attitude used to be present in football and baseball here, too, but I'd like to see our hoops team go through the same metamorphosis as those sports. My ideal situation would've been for TCU, if I may use a lame media cliché, to "win the press conference" by picking a charismatic and can't-miss type of coach who would, by his mere presence, put Frog basketball back on the map. Frankly, Johnson doesn't fit that mold. That being said, I sincerely hope that I'm someday embarrassed by my skepticism and that Coach Johnson proves to be the guy to turn our basketball program around. He's got my full support, and I hope that The Varsity someday feels compelled to sell "TMFJ" T-shirts.
SWW: Sadly, I think the only way to describe the hiring of Trent Johnson is to remind everyone that one man's trash can be another man's treasure. It's not the prettiest conclusion I can draw, but based on the circumstances it is certainly the most apt. Johnson jumped ship at Stanford too early to take over the LSU gig and was never able to find his footing, but that by no means should suggest he's a bad coach. TCU is a TOUGH job, yes, but unlike LSU there is nowhere to go but up. By hiring away a coach from a major university and paying him three times what his predecessor made should make it boldly clear that TCU is looking to turn the corner and thinks they have their man. Del Conte is asking us to take a big leap of faith with him on Johnson, his first major hire as AD at TCU. Before you scoff, the last major leap of faith CDC asked the fanbase to join him on was raising the money for the new football stadium ... and all he did with it was turn water (Big East) into wine (Big 12). I agree that "winning the press Conference" would've been a nice shot in the arm for a program in need of it, but GP wasn't exactly press material in his larval stage back in early 2000. Del Conte and Johnson probably aren't going to turn MWC cellar dwelling into banners in the rafters in so few moves, but they're going to give it their best shot, and at this stage swinging and praying we don't miss is probably the best we can hope for. THAT'S the T-shirt that The Varsity should be selling: "TCU Basketball: Swinging and Praying We Won't Miss, since 2012."