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Thoughts from today.

When a new branch of the Princeton basketball coaching tree grows, it usually results in great celebration around these parts. Tonight however the feeling from this most recent bough is bittersweet.

After four seasons coaching the Tigers, Sydney Johnson is leaving his alma mater for Fairfield.

There has already been plenty of discussion about fair market value, of lateral moves, institutional support, of the role of athletics in an institution of higher learning and comparative admissions requirements across the Ivy League.

While these are all valid questions to discuss, my concern is that with the system that is currently in place the conversation we are presently having in 2011 will repeat itself in 2015 and 2019 and 2023 and...

Since Coach Carril's retirement in 1996 Princeton will have rotated through five coaches in 15 years. Bill Carmody, John Thompson III, Joe Scott and now Sydney Johnson each left for different reasons but the fact remains the same: None of these men were at Princeton for longer than four seasons.

The days of a 29 year lifer like Pete Carril are gone. I acknowledge that. But I worry that Jadwin Gym is now a weigh station where future coaches do not see the importance in staying longer than four campaigns. Has Princeton become a job built for only a certain ceiling of success?

Every time this program appears to have stabilized, upheaval awaits.

As other Ivy schools tinker with their admissions standards, are more aggressive about the acceptance of transfers and put greater focus on their basketball programs than ever before there is justifiable concern that Princeton will be unable to compete up a slanted playing field.

Did Sydney Johnson price himself out of Princeton's range? If so, what does that say about these next four years (or about Fairfield's level of interest)?

It was my hope that Johnson would stay for a few additional seasons, perhaps stealing an Ivy title from Harvard's tightening grip and then heading to a BCS program. It was unrealistic to expect more.

"Princeton will immediately engage in conducting a national search for Sydney's successor," says Athletic Director Gary Walters.

Walters will also have to win back many Tiger fans who currently are shocked and disappointed by today's news if my inbox is a fair pulse of the public. The result may have been inevitable but the perception is that the Athletic Department and the university did not do enough to make Sydney stay.

As I sit on my couch following a thoroughly unfulfilling NCAA Tournament final, I feel bad for the returning members of Princeton's roster - especially the junior class who took a leap of faith on what Coach Johnson was promising could be waiting for them. They achieved their goal but are left with an empty feeling.

I haven't fully worked through my own emotions, which is partially why I wanted to try and write tonight.

Selfishly, I'll miss being able to share time with Coach Johnson and talk as peers. I enjoyed our discussions of movies and off-court pursuits greatly and at the least my Netflix queue is in better shape thanks to some of his recommendations.

My last image of Sydney Johnson as the coach of Princeton comes from 13 days ago. Johnson met me at Jadwin to tape a quick interview before leaving the country on a family vacation to recharge after a long season. Running late, Johnson finished our recording, shook my hand, grabbed a large bag under each arm and raced out to a meeting.

The door shut behind him and he was gone.

Steven Postrel said,

April 5, 2011 @ 3:38 am

Haunting imagery there.

I think we need a full explanation from the University about what its strategy for the future is. Do they plan on running a revolving door coaching office in perpetuity? Is a four-year run for successful coaches to be the new normal?

I'm a little bit skeptical about the theory that SJ is running away from Harvard. If he'd stayed I think the Tigers would have been very competitive for the title next year (and they still may be). I'm not a big believer in the number of stars attached to a recruit, at least at the level of player that Harvard and Princeton recruit, so the great Amaker boogeyman doesn't scare me as much as it seems to others.

If someone has data to support a tightening up by the Princeton Admissions Office, that might change my opinion, but my guess is that this decision was mostly about money, which if true is really sad. One thing Princeton has is money to pay a coach.

daniel schmidt said,

April 5, 2011 @ 6:27 am

When Carmody left for NW, I got it. He was a career-assistant under Carrill and did all he could at Princeton by taking them to a Top 10 Ranking. When Thompson left, I also got it. Given his family ties, who knew if the G'Town job would ever open up again? I didn't blame him for taking his dream job. When Scott bolted for Denver, I also got that one. As passionate as he was and as much as he bled orange and black, he was better-suited for a coaching gig in the Rocky Mountains where he was revered as a Basketball God. His departure must have been a sigh of relief to a shell-shocked Gary Walters (who arguably might have had to make some tough decisions after another year or two under Scott). But Sydney Johnson leaving for Fairfield? As long as I live, I'll never, ever get this one.

Sure, there's the money. No doubt a bigger paycheck. The scholarships. No more battles with Admissions and having to worry about an even playing field in the recruiting trenches of the Ivy League. Given the upper hand that Harvard and Penn have on the recruiting trail, no longer does Sydney have to worry about competing with their surging programs.

But, ultimately, I think it came down to this: Sydney was smart enough to know that his stock was at a 52 Week High and as much as he loves Princeton, the future just isn't as bright as the present. Maybe Amaker wins the Ivy League over the next couple years and Princeton is resigned to the NIT. Maybe that takes away some of his invincibility. Maybe, just maybe, those BCS jobs never come. At least with the Fairfield gig, if things don't work out, he'll always be able to point back to his success at Princeton (much like Scott did at Air Force).

I've always held Sydney in the highest regard. I have followed him very closely over the years and have found him to be authentic, genuine and a real class act. I will still watch his career develop and will always root for him. But, I'll never hold him on the same pedestal. Essentially, he saw a way out (for whatever reasons those were) and he took it. In doing so, he leaves behind his players, student body, Princeton Family and Fans alike. I would have understood this decision had it been a Big East, ACC or even a mid-major. But (no disrespect to) Fairfield? Sydney, you could have done so much better.

As far as what's next: I'd imagine Gary and company have a short-list which I'd imagine would include: Earl, Henderson and Brennan. All three would be fantastic head coaches. The challenge for Gary (much like Sydney's lecture when he first became coach) is "protecting the legacy of Princeton basketball." This could very well be Gary's last hire as AD, so this last hire could define his legacy, too.

George Clark said,

April 5, 2011 @ 9:05 am

Princeton basketball is a myth...It is the compelling myth of my life, but it exists only in my imagination. It was created by Bill Bradley, but built by Pete Carril. Bradley's coach, you will recall, bolted for the glitz and glamour of Hollywood (not Westwood) almost as soon as Bradley was gone. Pete, preceded here by Walters, wanted a life, not just a job. He got what he wanted, and he became, in the basketball world, a legend. Believe me, if he gave a shit about being a "legend" he would not have stayed. Carmody, a great basketball mind, was not a Tiger; he was, and is, a coach. Why not get paid what I am worth? Why not, indeed. He has received what I am told is "super-security" in Evanston. JTlll...he essentially succeeded his father and who would not want that? Incidentally, he makes $1.8 mill per. Scott: a Carril guy in an era when the old virtues don't play as well. SJ, a great mind and, we thought, a Tiger. But the world has changed.

George Clark said,

April 5, 2011 @ 9:18 am

CONTINUED: The myth is that it really matters that we try to compete against anybody by doing things in a certain, ie. virtuous, way even though everybody else cheats. Success was achieved by the means employed, not necessarily by the ends achieved. That's why some of our best moments are close losses against long odds, Georgetown, NC, Kentucky, even UCLA (in the 60's). The supreme vindication of the "Princeton Way": 1996 UCLA, in which SJ was a star. What basketball has become is a marketing tool for colleges and universities. Let's call it the "Calipari-Pitino Way." For young men like SJ to perceive success in basketball that way is, to me, the tragedy that college basketball has become. It really hurts that someone who exemplified the "Spirit of '96" no longer sees its relevance.

George Clark said,

April 5, 2011 @ 9:35 am

I"LL STOP AFTER THIS, I PROMISE! Nothing demonstrates the sorry state of college basketball in the 21st Century better than the tremendous run enjoyed by the Butler Bulldogs, the collegiate embodiment, we hoped, of Hickory High. Ask yourself if Butler might have had a better chance to win last night if the Hayward kid had not left school to enter the NBA draft last year. If a shot at the national championship was not enough for a Butler kid, where are we going? NCAA sanctions for UCONN? Who cares? Can't wait to fill out my Bud Light-KFC-JPMorganChase-Nachos Bracket form for next year's tournament!

Jack said,

April 5, 2011 @ 11:45 am

I'm about where daniel schmidt is on this. If Sydney had not been so vocal about commitment, competing, getting Princeton basketball back to where it belongs and comparing the Princeton program to the Kentucky program, it wouldn't have been such a bitter pill. But Fairfield? Really? Not Northwestern, not Georgetown. Not a major conference. Not a major university. Sorry, I won't be able to look at sydney in the same way. He lead us to expect more from him. That is not to say I give the University a pass. I'm sure the anti athletic smugness that permeates the place contributed to him bailing.

Rodney Johnson said,

April 5, 2011 @ 5:55 pm

In my years as an undergraduate, I was always amazed by the fact that there were so many good writers on campus. Every paper I wrote, someone did a better job. Here again, on this board, I know if I wait someone will express my sentiments better than I ever could.

Daniel Schmidt: Ditto for me.

I really thought we had someone and something special, and that it would last at least a little longer.

Bruce Finkelstein said,

April 5, 2011 @ 6:41 pm

It may seem pretty feeble to say this after the fact, but the first thing that popped into my head after seeing Sydney Johnson (after the Kentucky game) break down and talk about how much he loved Princeton was - OK where is he going?

larry said,

April 5, 2011 @ 8:32 pm

Great posts on the boards today (althought I don't understand an objection to a Carmody return). Desi said it best: "Lucy (read Sidney, Gary, or Shirley) you got some 'spaining to do." I'm not going to hold my breath.

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