Commentary

Johnson bailed out after crossing the line

Originally Published: March 22, 2008
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- If Saturday night's Stanford-Marquette game were an SAT, Trent Johnson would have been the one without a No. 2 pencil.

[+] EnlargeTrent Johnson
AP Photo/Matt SaylesTrent Johnson gave the evil eye to the refs as he exited the court.
I mean, there's clueless, and then there's no-eraser clueless.

It would have been nice if Johnson had been on the Stanford sideline for the Cardinal's last-second, 82-81 overtime victory. Then again, it was only the NCAA tournament. Nothing at stake except, you know, a Sweet 16 appearance.

But the Stanford coach couldn't help himself. He had to pop off. Not once, which happens, but a mind-boggling second time. Near the top of the arc. Out in the open. To a second referee. After he'd been warned the first time with a, "Trent, that's enough."

Of course, he got tossed. One technical foul called by David Hall. Another technical foul called by Curtis Shaw, who has a reputation for a short fuse and quick whistle.

Enjoy the free Powerades in the locker room, Trent. You missed one of the great games of the Madness.

There are certain things you never, ever do as a coach. Wearing checks with stripes is one. Asking your AD, "Where is this NCAA rule book you speak of?" And in Johnson's case, the Cardinal sin: getting thrown out of the most important game of your season.

Johnson is a good guy with a long track record of good guy-ness. But those who know him and cover him on a regular basis say he's wound tighter than a taped ankle. Nothing wrong with that. Stanford wouldn't have won 26 games before the NCAA tournament started and defied the preseason picks without that intensity.

But Johnson crossed the line Saturday evening. Actually, he crossed the sideline and kept going all the way to where the refs were standing. Two T's and four made Marquette free throws later, a 25-24 Stanford deficit had grown to 29-24. Johnson never saw another point in person.

I don't get it, man. I've said a helluva lot worse. ... I was shocked. I was shocked. Shocked. Just blew me away.

--Stanford coach Trent Johnson

"I don't get it, man," said Johnson, standing in the hallway outside the Stanford locker room. "I've said a helluva lot worse. ... I was shocked. I was shocked. Shocked. Just blew me away."

It happened with 3:36 remaining in the first half. By then the refs had already warned the Stanford bench to sit down and Johnson to calm down. This is otherwise known as the, "Don't push your luck" warning.

Stanford's Lawrence Hill was called for a foul. A steamed Johnson left the coach's box to say something and got T'd up. That's one. Now turn around and go talk to your team.

Except that Johnson kept walking. He got near Shaw, said something, and that was that. Shaw gave the T sign with his hands, as well as the universal, "You're out of here" gesture.

Johnson stood frozen on the court, hands on hips, staring a rim-wide hole through Shaw. If looks could kill, Shaw would have been picking out a coffin.

Then Johnson moved toward the middle of sidelines, then a few feet away from the Marquette huddle as he tried to get Shaw to acknowledge him. Johnson finally gave up and walked behind the Marquette players, toward the tunnel, through a blue curtain and into the Stanford locker room.

"During a timeout, coaches are allowed to stay in the vicinity of their bench," said Shaw in a postgame statement. "They are not allowed to walk out on the floor and continue to complain."

Was it a ticky-tack ejection in such a huge game? Sure. But if everyone at courtside knows Shaw has a short-trigger whistle, wouldn't you think Johnson would know it too?

"They have a hard job to do," said Johnson of the officials. "The responsibility was on me. ... I don't duck my responsibilities and I don't place blame."

[+] EnlargeWesley Matthews
AP Photo/Kevork DjansezianWesley Matthews made all four free throws after Johnson received two technicals.
Remember that scene in "Hoosiers," when Gene Hackman gets thrown out of a game, leaving the bewildered Dennis Hopper as the emergency coach?

That was Stanford assistant coach Doug Oliver when Johnson got tossed.

"I didn't see the first technical," said Oliver, who coached Johnson at Boise State, is a former head coach at Idaho State and is in his second tour of duty as a Stanford assistant. "When I saw the hand go up to leave, I was a bit shocked, I mean, and caught off guard. I watched Trent a little bit and then I actually started to work into the moment of head coach again."

Two minutes later Stanford trailed, 36-25. Johnson was watching the whole thing on a locker room TV, worried that he'd just cost his team its NCAA tournament.

But Stanford grinded its way back into the game. It wasn't a complicated formula. In short, get it to Twin I, sophomore 7-footer Brook Lopez.

Lopez had two points at halftime, 22 at the end of regulation, and 30 by the end of overtime, including the game-winning shot with 1.3 seconds remaining. "Half floater, half hook shot," he said.

Lopez and Twin II, Robin Lopez, combined for 48 points, 13 rebounds, and the bailout of one very relieved head coach.

"Hopefully it's our once-in-a-lifetime moment," Robin said.

At game's end, Stanford's players did little Jim Valvanos and looked for people to hug. Senior forward Fred Washington found assistant coach Donny Guerinoni.

"I was yelling so hard I almost passed out on the court," Washington said. "All of a sudden my legs started shaking and I was like, 'Don't let me go, I don't think I can walk."'

He recovered. Everybody did, including Johnson.

"He was in here crying," Washington said. Pause. "Nahhhhhh." Pause. "He had a little tear in his eye."

Truth is, Johnson was emotional. He thanked his players for rescuing him. And he apologized.

"Because I put them in a tough situation," Johnson said.

The third-seeded Cardinal play the winner of Sunday's Miami-Texas game. But that's next week. For now they're savoring a victory and a circumstance that Washington called, "very weird."

"As much as everybody wants to make a story out of the coach getting thrown out of the game for a technical, let's write about how these guys stayed together, played their tails off and become better. ... That's the story," Johnson said. "It's not the coach getting thrown out of the game for whatever reason."

Sorry, but it was. And it was almost the reason why Marquette, not Stanford, reached the Sweet 16. It's a lesson Johnson might want to remember.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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