Introducing new men’s basketball head coach Sydney Johnson

by John Torsiello

When Ed Cooley decided to leave the Fairfield University men’s basketball team to coach at Providence College after the 2010-11 season, there may have been some nervousness among fans and alumni of the Stags.

After all, Cooley had built the Fairfield men’s hoops program into a solid winner, one that posted 25 victories last season, captured the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season title, and won entry to the National Invitational Tournament.

No worries. The man who replaced Cooley, Sydney Johnson, brought to Fairfield an impeccable resume, and is a man deeply committed to the University, its ideals, and the continued success of the men’s basketball team.

Johnson, the 12th coach in the Stags’ men’s basketball history, spent the previous four years as head coach of his alma mater, Princeton University. He led the Tigers to the 2010-11 Ivy League title, winning 25 games, securing a berth in the NCAA Tournament and nearly upsetting powerhouse Kentucky before losing by two points in the game’s final seconds.

Johnson, the Ivy League Player of the Year at Princeton in 1997 and a former professional player in Italy, turned around the Tigers’ program in four years, winning six games his first season as head coach, 13 the next season, and 20 the year after that, before leading Princeton to last year’s stellar accomplishments. He is widely considered one of the brightest and most talented young coaches in the NCAA by several sources.

“I think Sydney exhibits all the qualities of a successful head coach,” said Fairfield University Athletics Director Gene Doris when Johnson was hired. “He embraces the Jesuit philosophy, which is the cornerstone of Fairfield University, and exhibits a clear understanding of the University’s mission. He places a strong value on academics, which is evident in the success his student-athletes have achieved in the classroom.”

It certainly wasn’t an easy choice for Johnson to leave his beloved alma mater and the most successful men’s basketball program in the Ivy League to take over the Stags. But it is a new mission he embraces wholeheartedly. He is bursting with enthusiasm and believes he has found a new home at Fairfield. The Johnson family — wife, Jennifer, and two young children — have settled in well in the Fairfield area and are “getting close to having a set routine,” he added.

“I’m thrilled from the standpoint of this being a very great opportunity for me. I went to school at Princeton and coached there and had always been so impressed by the value the school places on academics and athletics,” he said. “Here, at Fairfield, that commitment to excellence in both fields is just as strong. I look at the students here, the academics, the Jesuit tradition, the basketball tradition and the administration’s commitment to the program and I just hope that I can measure up to the standards the University has set.”

Johnson doesn’t view himself as a coach who will necessarily pound his personal stamp on the basketball program. He has his beliefs, his own way of coaching. But he sees himself as more of a caretaker of the history his coaching predecessors and Stag players have established before him.

“Coach Cooley did an amazing job in the five years he was here. But whether it is Coach Cooley or the coaches that came before him it is a continuum, and you have to understand that. We all bring something to the table. I’m not going to go out of my way to establish who I am. I’m very comfortable in my own skin and I’m at a school that believes in me. I’m going to cherish that fact. I’m here to help the kids achieve both on the court and off.”

Johnson, who also coached at Georgetown University under John Thompson III, where he helped guide the Hoyas to the program’s first Final Four in 22 years, believes his task at Fairfield is two-fold.

“I am very exacting in how I want our young men to be off the court. I want them to represent the University well, be humble and eager to learn, and do well in the classroom. I want them to develop as great men. I’m very demanding with that.”

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He continues, “On the court, we try and teach every single one of our guys, no matter what their positions, to dribble, pass and shoot and give them all the confidence in the world to succeed.”

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