Every in-the-know Stanford fan, whether the most fervent of Trent Johnson supporters or detractors, can agree on that one point.
"I think he walked from a situation where he was not really embraced," said a booster with longtime Stanford affiliations, the third source in TheBootleg.com's coverage of the men's basketball coaching transition. "I think it was the decision for Trent Johnson to make given what he saw as writing on wall.
While other sources have been closer to Trent Johnson, this source's primary loyalty is to the basketball program, to the University itself. He stresses that, unlike previous sources, most of his information does not come directly from Bob Bowlsby, Trent Johnson or other key decision-makers, and is thus often his best, educated conjecture. Nonetheless, he brings a different perspective and isn't afraid to suggest the heretofore taboo: perhaps Trent Johnson gave Bob Bowlsby plenty of reason not to extend his contract in a timely fashion.
Trent Johnson was likely on thin ice at the very beginning of this past season. Bowlsby was not happy with last season's results, particularly the meltdown in the NCAA Tournament, according to this source. Brook Lopez' early academic ineligibility didn't help matters either.
"I think Bowlsby approached the issue with some skepticism at the start of year," the source said. "Johnson was kind of on a short leash. If he didn't produce this year, he probably was not going to be around as a coach again."
A Bowlsby decision to remove Johnson, however, would be much tougher to justify come March than five months earlier, given the team's success over the season.
"I don't think too many saw Stanford second in the Pac-10; certainly the media didn't," the source said. "I especially don't think anyone foresaw Trent Johnson as Coach of the Year. I certainly don't think Bob Bowlsby expected that."
"So Bowlsby found himself in a different position at the end of year. As the year went along, he may not have felt any more comfortable with Trent Johnson as coach, but it became a much more difficult decision not to reach out and retain Trent Johnson as all this recognition started to roll in. So I think in that respect, Bowlsby found himself in bit of bind."
The lack of communication Bowlsby kept with Johnson throughout the season, as TheBootleg.com has previously reported, is consistent with the actions of a man who's already made up his mind. By holding Johnson at arm's length and not handling a contract extension until late in the year, Bowlsby appears to have stalled as much as he could. But as Stanford's stock rose and rose from January onward, it became harder for Bowlsby not to reach out to Johnson – however perfunctorily.
"It looks like he had to make an offer, but wasn't going to put out something that would cause Trent to embrace it," this third source said of Bowlsby. "Reading between lines, he probably made him an offer he knew he would refuse."
That's exactly what happened, and now Bowlsby and Stanford are searching for a new basketball coach.
The more pressing question is why, if true, Bowlsby had already all but decided to find a new head coach heading into this season. (For if a Pac-10 Coach of the Year honor and Sweet 16 bid wasn't enough to earn Trent Johnson an attractive extension offer, what possibly could have?) This third source has an explanation.
"One thing we know about Bob Bowlsby is he pays attention to what players say. Obviously, he took very seriously input about Walt Harris from the football team. He's not going to let inmates run the asylum, but at the same time, he definitely takes that information into consideration and weighs it."
Our source argues that if the basketball program were a house, Bowlsby examined the so-called foundation issues.
"Do players really buy-in, and respect him?" the source wonders. "Is there good team chemistry, a good relationship between him and the players? Is the coach fitting in well? I think he made the right decision with Walt Harris, and I think he slowplayed Trent Johnson because he wasn't convinced across all those concerns that he was the right guy."
As evidence, the source points to several conflicts, that individually are commonplace in college basketball, but collectively, may have suggested to Bowlsby a chemistry issue between Coach Johnson and his team:
- Tim Morris' decision to transfer
- "Chris Hernandez I'm sure was not happy about being moved from the point guard and asked to play the two when Mitch Johnson came in."
- Conflict between Hernandez and Matt Haryasz on the 2005-06 team. (I saw those guys all the time and still don't know exactly who disliked whom, but it was an open secret that there were plenty of personality clashes on that squad – clashes that may well have caused Stanford to underperform.)
- Fred Washington's back-and-forth with Johnson, especially in the 2006-07 season over whether he would receive an additional year of eligibility (he eventually did), though the squabbling appeared to be largely over by Washington's senior year.
- Conflict between Trent Johnson and the Lopez twins, and particularly Trent Johnson and Deborah Ledford
- The twins' announcement to go pro via an agent, just days after the Sweet 16 loss. "They were two of the first college basketball players to announce they were leaving. I can't imagine the last time that happened, and it happened so quick and with such a sense of finality that, for me, as a fan of Stanford, it was almost, ‘Screw you, we're out of here.' Brook was off the reservation many times, but you have to try to patch relationships."
- "The complete disappearance, almost deer in the headlights, of Anthony Goods and Law Hill [this season]. Those guys never looked to me like they were
100 percent in games. The coach has to have some responsibility for that."
The source also points out that many of the most outspoken former players on Johnson's behalf remember him as an assistant, not a head coach. His personality may well have changed with his role.
Fans can and will disagree with whether the above criticisms are valid and reflect poorly on Johnson, and just how strong of a coach Trent Johnson was at Stanford. Our third source acknowledges as much.
"It depends on your view of Trent," he said. "The President, his friends, and big donors who knew and like him well all say Bob Bowlsby screwed up. Others, who aren't saying or posting as much, but always had questions on his abilities and team chemistry and so forth said, ‘We could do better. '"
Knowing this fully, TheBootleg.com let its first source, close to Trent Johnson, respond to the idea that Johnson might have been slowplayed into an unwanted departure because of team chemistry concerns:
"This whole team chemistry angle is a laugh," he said. "Anyone who just watched the team during timeouts or on the bench could see the incredible team chemistry. There is no way this team would have overachieved as it did if their team chemistry wasn't as strong as it was."
But, two points seem inarguable. First, agree or disagree, Bob Bowlsby looked at the situation and made an intentional decision to slowplay Trent Johnson.
"You've got to acknowledge that fact," the third source says. "Look at how Bowlsby handled the whole thing. You have to think he's gullible, which I don't think is true with him, or you have to think he wanted to make a change. There's not too much middle ground here."
And, second, Trent Johnson realized what was happening and felt he had no choice but to move on.
"Perfectly astute, rational basketball fans can disagree [on the merits], but I don't see how you ignore the signs of the slowplay and say he really wanted Trent Johnson to come back," the same source adds. "Anyone out of school, in business or in a corporate environment for awhile, can kind of read that writing on the wall. I think Johnson kind of read it."
Stay tuned to TheBootleg.com for more on Bob Bowlsby and the Stanford men's basketball program.
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