TUSCALOOSA — Alabama and head men’s basketball coach Avery Johnson mutually agreed to part ways Sunday after settling on an amicable buyout of Johnson’s contract.
“After meeting with Coach Johnson, we made the decision to mutually part ways,” Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said in a statement Sunday. “This was not an easy decision, and we thank him for his contributions over the past four seasons. We wish Coach Johnson and his family the very best.”
Johnson earned $3.06 million in 2018-19 as college basketball’s 19th-highest paid head coach, according to USA Today’s annual coaching salary database, and was set to receive an $8 million buyout should he be fired without cause prior to April 15 as stipulated in a 2017 contract extension that ran through 2023.
Of course, the negotiations over the last three days likely allowed both parties to save face financially with a mutually-agreed upon figure in what appears to be a peaceful breakup.
“I would like to thank The University of Alabama, Bill Battle and the board of trustees for providing me the opportunity to serve as the head basketball coach,” Johnson said in the same statement. “I’d also like to thank President Bell and Greg Byrne, our assistant coaches, support staff, the fans and student body for making this such a special experience for me and my family. Finally, and most importantly, I’d like to thank all of the players and parents. It was an honor and privilege to work with these young men and their families. This was an opportunity of a lifetime, and we truly enjoyed our experience at Alabama. I also want to thank my family for all of their support and contributions to the program.”
Alabama assistant coach John Pelphrey will serve as interim coach until a permenant replacement is named.
Johnson ends his four-year tenure at Alabama with a 75-62 overall record, including a losing 34-38 mark in Southeastern Conference play, going 8-10 in the SEC three of his four seasons, including the last two years.
The split comes four days after the Crimson Tide’s disappointing 2018-19 season (18-16, 8-10 SEC) came to an end with an uninspired first-round exit from the National Invitation Tournament, the third such one-and-done ouster from the NIT in Johnson’s four seasons in Tuscaloosa.
The other season, in 2017-18, included Alabama’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2012, and first NCAA Tournament win since 2006 before getting throttled by eventual national champion Villanova in the second round a year ago.
Of course, that success seemed like a lifetime ago during the Crimson Tide’s admitted “setback” season in Year 4, when Alabama saw its NCAA Tournament hopes slowly fade away due to another late-season collapse that involved dropping eight of its last 11 games.
“Yeah, we’ve had a little bit of a setback this year, and I know this is a microwave era where there’s always ‘blow the team up, blow the staff up’ when you don’t get the results you want,” Johnson said after Wednesday night’s 80-79 overtime loss to eighth-seeded Norfolk State. “But when (that happens), you just work hard. I feel we have the right people, we have a nice recruiting class coming in, but we just have to get better.”
It was during that late-season slide that Crimson Tide fans became much more vocal with their displeasure, especially regarding the product on display, with things like in-game coaching and overall team effort coming into question as double-digit second-half leads evaporated before their eyes.
And it happened during a season that featured plenty of promise after Alabama opened 10-3 following an encouraging 77-75 upset of then-No. 13 Kentucky in the SEC opener for both schools.
But back-to-back loses to LSU and Texas A&M, the latter coming at home on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer after leading by as many as 12 in the opening minutes of the second half, began a downward spiral that was seemingly capped by six losses in the Tide’s last eight regular-season games to effectively fall into NCAA bubble consideration.
By that point, some Alabama basketball fans were already calling for Johnson’s job, tired of a perceived lack of positive progress in Year 4 of his tenure.
Still, despite fan disappointment, it wasn’t until Wednesday night’s disheartening effort against Norfolk State, in a game the top-seeded Tide held a 10-point advantage more than 2 minutes into the second half, that the tenor shifted to one of inevitability.
It didn’t help that Spartans forward Steven Whitley described seeing Alabama players “lagging around” during pregame warmups, further bringing the team’s lack of effort in games into question.
Johnson’s inability to positively inspire his players and establish a winning mentality was further exasperated when talented 17-year-old freshman point guard Kira Lewis Jr. appeared to cite the less than 2,100-person attendance Wednesday with the players’ obvious lulls in energy during the game: “(When) you see not that many people (in the stands), and you know it’s a NIT game, so it’s kinda hard to get up for that one.”
While its eventual split became more likely down the stretch, Alabama men’s basketball — at least as it stands now — appears on a much better footing than it did four years ago when Johnson was hired.
A former NBA point guard and head coach, Johnson helped infuse greater visibility and elevated talent from a recruiting standpoint, including signing eventual NBA lottery pick Collin Sexton prior to the 2017-18 season. Sexton, who is wrapping up his rookie season with the Cleveland Cavaliers after being the No. 8 overall pick last summer, helped carry the Tide to its lone NCAA Tournament appearance under Johnson, mostly as a one-man scoring machine.
But despite another successful recruiting class last year, including signing Lewis out of Huntsville as a reclassified four-star prospect, Johnson struggled to develop his promising young talent quickly enough to withstand the SEC gauntlet this season, especially on a night-in and night-out basis.
Still, barring any significant roster turnover, there is a strong foundation in place, including signing the nation’s 11th-ranked recruiting class in February.
Alabama will lose four seniors — center Donta Hall, wing Riley Norris, and guards Avery Johnson Jr. and Lawson Schaffer — and could see redshirt junior guard Dazon Ingram move on as a graduate transfer after a recent Instagram post appeared to indicate his exit as well.
Still, with Lewis returning as well as rising juniors Herbert Jones, Galin Smith, Alex Reese and John Petty all expected back, there is plenty of talent remaining for whoever Byrne ultimately hires to replace Johnson.
“There are so many desirables here at The University of Alabama, and the brand itself gives all of our teams the ability to recruit nationally,” Byrne said in a statement. “This is such a great place, and people want to be part of it.”