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Thomas Johnson said the allure of Georgia and the chance to coach with a longtime friend led him to Berry College.
Johnson resigned as an assistant basketball coach at East Tennessee State last week. His hiring at Berry, an NCAA Division III school in Rome, Ga., is expected to be announced today. He joins the staff of Jeff Rogers, who was hired in April.
“We go way back,” Johnson said. “This is something we talked about for a long time. We just thought it would be good for us to work together. And I get to be closer to family and friends.”
Johnson will help Rogers try to rebuild a program that went 5-21 last year as it transitioned from NAIA membership to Division III.
“Thomas and I first met when we both still coaching high school ball around 18 years ago and we became friends,” Rogers said. “For years we had talked about how neat it would be to coach together some day. When this opportunity came up, we started talking about it and were able to work it out.”
Johnson also coached at Middle Tennessee State, UAB and Samford before ETSU, but Rogers said it wasn’t that Division I experience that led to the hiring.
“For us, really the level of the division was less important than finding the right person,” Rogers said. “I think a lot of people look at the different levels. At the end of the day, with us and trying to rebuild a program, it was more what kind of person do we have? Are they gonna fit the bill of what we’re trying to do to build our program? And T.J. fit the bill perfect for us.”
Johnson was an assistant on Murry Bartow’s staff at ETSU for three years.
“Thomas is a good guy,” Bartow said. “He just felt, based on where he is in his career, he wanted to get closer. He has a daughter and son in Atlanta. He thought this was a good opportunity.”
Losing an assistant — the only holdover from last year’s staff — so close to the season wasn’t ideal, Bartow admitted.
“The timing’s not great,” Bartow said. “A lot of times in our business, the timing is not perfect. We just have to keep moving on. I haven’t made any decisions (on a replacement) at this point. We’re still just trying to look at it and think it through and decide what we want to do.”
Bartow added he couldn’t really say if he might begin the season with two assistants instead of three.
“I am really not sure,” he said. “This kind of hit me ... the timing is pretty unusual ... a week before school. All options are on the table. I am gonna do what I feel is best for our program. We could maybe hire somebody quick or it could be awhile. I really don’t know.”
Whether Johnson is replaced soon or not, Bartow will have an entirely new staff when the season opens. Bob Bolen and Thomas Carr were hired to replace Scott Wagers and Mike Boyd. Wagers is now working for Pat Knight at Lamar, while Boyd retired.
Bolen came from Mountain State University in Beckley, W.Va., where he was head coach for 19 years, while Carr was head coach at George Washington High School in Danville, Va., where his team led the state in scoring.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to have Thomas and Bob here,” Bartow said. “They are unbelievably good. They’re gonna pay huge dividends recruiting and coaching the team as well.”
Johnson said he enjoyed his three years at ETSU.
“I met a lot of people who were really great to me,” he said. “Coach Bartow is great. I enjoyed working with him again. Johnson City and the community were fantastic. I will definitely miss it.
“I know I’m leaving late in the process. I obviously didn’t want to put Coach or ETSU in a bad situation. But in the end, you have to do what’s best for you and your family.”
Meanwhile, ETSU forward Lukas Poderis hasn’t been able to work out because of a knee injury. The senior from Florida missed last season with a torn Achilles tendon. His comeback from that injury was on track when the knee flared up. Poderis has been told by doctors to stay off his feet for three weeks.
ETSU’s schedule is complete and about to be announced. Three home games will be played at Freedom Hall. Once the contracts for those three games are finalized, the schedule will be officially announced.