Avery Johnson: ‘I Needed A Challenge’

Avery Johnson became the head basketball coach at Alabama earlier this month, but the road to this destination was two years in the making.

“Well, after my last coaching stint with the Nets when I went back to ESPN, I started thinking about two years from now,” Johnson said on CBS Sports Radio’s Ferrall on the Bench. “What would I want my legacy to be? Do I want to try to go back to college? Do I want to give college a chance? Do I want to go to an NBA front office? Do I want to stay in television? So two years ago, I started asking myself all of those questions. And over those two years, my son was playing on the AAU circuit – the high-level AAU circuit – so I had a chance to watch a lot of the rising stars on that circuit. He was being recruited by some schools, so I had a chance to visit with probably 30+ college coaches from around the country.”

Johnson kept receiving the same statements: Coach, you should give college a try. Coach, college kids could really benefit from your coaching and your teaching and your mentorship.

“So when college jobs became open this year, I started to keep a close eye on them and was hoping maybe we would get a call,” Johnson said. “And I started to get phone calls from some colleges and one was from the University of Alabama. And when they called and wanted to come in and seriously meet with me about the position, I jumped all over it.”

It’s a great opportunity, but Scott Ferrall couldn’t help but wonder what the transition will be like for Johnson. After all, Johnson won an NBA title with the Spurs in 1999 and was NBA Coach of the Year in 2006. Will it be tough to coach college basketball – albeit in an elite conference – after achieving so much at the highest level?

“Since I’ve been on the job – every day I’m on the job – I’m convinced and convicted this was the right thing to do,” Johnson said. “These are kids. These are basically (pieces) of clay that hasn’t been shaped yet, and I get a chance to shape them on and off the court, especially if they’re coachable. So sure, would I have had an opportunity to interview for some NBA jobs? Absolutely. Did I have a chance to sign a multi-year contract to stay in the media? Absolutely. But I needed a challenge, and this challenge is with a program that’s never been to the Final Four. We’re an elite football program with a future Hall of Fame coach, with a basketball program that’s underperformed, and I want to help them get to all of their dreams and goals. That’s why I’m here.”

Johnson inherits a program that last year went 19-15 overall and 8-10 in the SEC. The Crimson Tide finished outside the top 100 nationally in virtually every major offensive and defensive statistic, and the program has just one Sweet 16 appearance since 1991.

So, coach, how do you beat Kentucky?

“Well, I’ll tell you how you beat them. I could definitely beat them if I had Tim Duncan and LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in his prime,” Johnson joked. “But no, I think you got to to get in line and get in the game in terms of the type of players that they recruit. You got to have a high level of role players – so not just the blue-chip players, but the high-level role players that can come in and play at a high level. What we need is a better home-court environment in Coleman Coliseum. I think the student experience at our building in our arena is below average, so we have to change that. I just think we got to get in the game with the type of recruits that (Kentucky is) recruiting, and you got to get lucky and you got to have some seniors and some upperclassmen that know how to play . . . and you pair (them) with some younger players and hopefully they play at a maximum level.”

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