I hate Lane Kiffin.
I disliked him at Tennessee, but ever since he jumped ship after a year of SEC football and left for the greener pastures of USC and the PAC-10, I’ve loathed Lane Kiffin. To me, he symbolizes everything that’s wrong with coaches in NCAA sports — phony smiles, good haircuts, no loyalty, and a devotion to winning only as an end to their own means.
So, why am I talking about Lane Kiffin? Just to make it clear that Sydney Johnson is no Lane Kiffin.
Because after a week+ now of having the Tiger sports fan inside me curled up in the fetal position, mourning the loss of our men’s basketball coach, I think it’s starting to all make sense. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think I would have done the exact same thing. Is this the sports fan equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome? Entirely possible! But hear me out anyways.
The Princeton Ceiling
What was Sydney Johnson’s ceiling at Princeton?
Pretty much exactly what he accomplished last year.
Winning the Ivy League tournament, and keeping the first round game respectable in the NCAA tournament, is about as well as Johnson could ever hope for one of his teams to do. Maybe if he stuck around another few decades, he might be lucky enough to have a team upset a higher seed in the first round, like his ’96 Tigers did so memorably against UCLA.
But he’ll never compete for a national title. And he’ll probably never even make a run like Cornell did, which was built on the backs of 7 foot tall transfer students from big name programs.
He had almost no shot of becoming the greatest Princeton coach of all time; that honor belongs to Hall of Famer Pete Carril*, who coached from ’67-’96. He could have been great, but not the greatest. Sydney Johnson was the hometown hero who came back and took his basketball team to the tournament. And we couldn’t ask much more of him, because Princeton isn’t designed to give much more.
The Argument for Leaving
If Sydney Johnson was intent on leaving Princeton at some point, then this was his year.
Kareem Maddox and Dan Mavraides are graduating. We’ve still got talent, to be sure, but after winning the Ivy League by the slimmest of margins this year, it’ll be hard to repeat as Ivy League champions.
Without the benefit of athletic scholarships, transfers, and other recruiting tools, Johnson had to hope to capture lightning in a bottle once with his team and parlay that into a better offer.
This was that lightning-in-a-bottle year. And so Johnson cashed in.
A lot of the confusion and hurt of Princeton fans has been Johnson’s choice of Fairfield. If he was leaving for UNC, or Kansas, or another storied program, then we’d be ok with it. But FAIRFIELD?
Well, Fairfield has a few things going for it. First, and somewhat importantly, he’ll make more money, maybe a lot more (hard to find exact figures, but the common wisdom of the internet seems to think he’ll be going from the neighborhood of 200k to more like 600k). More importantly, FAIRFIELD ISN’T PRINCETON. Johnson will have the opportunity to recruit with scholarships, aggressively pursue transfer students, and do all the sorts of things he couldn’t do at Princeton. He’ll have the chance to build a real program, compete in a small conference Fairfield already dominates, and make some runs in the tournament.
And then he’ll leave Fairfield for a major conference school.
If Johnson’s goal was not to be the Princeton coach for the rest of his life, then it makes sense that his goal would be to raise himself to be part of the conversation of other great coaches — to compete for, and possibly win, a national title. He was the youngest coach in the Ivy League when he started coaching Princeton in 2007; he’s still well on pace to be the coach at a serious program by the time he’s 40.
The old coach of Fairfield left for Providence and a shot to compete in the Big East.** If I were Sydney, I’d want to go somewhere where I had a real chance to win it all, too.
But that’s why I don’t hate Sydney Johnson, and why I wish him the best. He gave us what he could. I believe his tears were genuine. And now it’s time for him to become a legendary coach somewhere, down the line. It’ll happen. Just you wait.
*An earlier version of this blog post misspelled former Princeton coach Pete Carril’s name, rather egregiously. Thanks to commenter Hank Moody for the heads up.
**An earlier version of this blog post erroneously suggested that Providence is in the Atlantic 10. It’s not; it’s part of the Big East. The author was probably thinking of Xavier, which he frequently confuses with Providence. This is even more embarrasing because the author’s uncle is a proud Providence College alum. Thanks to eagle-eyed commenter ’05 for the tip.