This was long before the Sandusky scandal tarnished Paterno and disgraced the university. This was JoePa, the grandfatherly icon who produced national championships, All-Americans and scholars.
"The things that I heard and saw about Joe Paterno," Johnson said, "and he was the all-time winningest coach. At that point, I said, 'You know what? If they're saying this about that guy, if you ever get an opportunity, it will be said about you, too.' That was an eye-opener to me."
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And so it has come to pass.
Barring five victories in as many days here at the ACC tournament, a run that even he considers impossible, Johnson will conclude his second season as Virginia Tech's head coach this week. His Hokies were 13-19 last season, 4-14 in the conference. This year they are 9-21, 2-16.
Suffice to say, there are better ways to impress the new boss — athletic director Whit Babcock replaced the retired Jim Weaver last month — than back-to-back last-place finishes in your league.
On the eve of Wednesday's first-round tournament game against Miami, Johnson pleasantly faced the unpleasant questions: Does he believe he's coaching for his job? Have he and Babcock met? Is there a timetable for a decision after the season? Is he confident he's the right man for the job?
Johnson's responses were unremarkable. He and Babcock have not talked extensively, and yes, he's confident in his ability to return Tech to the relevancy it enjoyed under former coach Seth Greenberg.
"I think we're right around the corner," Johnson said, citing promising freshmen Devin Wilson, Trevor Thompson and Ben Emelogu, emerging sophomore Joey van Zegeren and a three-player recruiting class for next season.
Moments earlier, Miami coach Jim Larranaga had enthusiastically endorsed Johnson. But what else to expect from a colleague? What else to expect when Johnson worked under Larranaga at George Mason and when Larranaga considers Johnson "a dear friend"?
The pressing issues are: Does Babcock agree? Can Tech afford to gamble that Johnson, as unproven as he is likable, can recruit and lead well enough to reverse a slide that's costing more than $1 million annually in lost ticket sales and casting a pall over the department? Can Tech afford to lure an established head coach? Money notwithstanding, is the program attractive enough to entice top-shelf candidates? Or would those coaches merely use Tech as leverage with their present employers?
Rest assured, some donors and fans are clamoring for a change. Johnson knows it, and Babcock hears it, directly or electronically.
The myriad injuries that Johnson cites and undoubtedly hampered this season? Hard-liners counter that the Hokies were healthy for most of last season and still finished last with the nation's leading scorer, Erick Green. And early this season, before injury struck, they lost at home to USC Upstate and UNC Greensboro.
Others counsel patience, a rare trait nowadays. They see Johnson adjusting adroitly to his depleted roster, while the players offer maximum effort. They appreciate his engaging manner and his players' academic performance.
These are among the many calculations Babcock must make. Moreover, he must make them with little knowledge about the man he is judging and the school he is serving.
I don't profess to know what Babcock should or will do. In fact, I'm convinced he remains torn.
Babcock is a coach's son. He knows that two years are rarely, if ever, enough to judge a coach. But he also knows that ACC basketball is no place for on-the-job training and that the longer Tech struggles, the more difficult and time-consuming the attempted recovery will be.
"It's mighty tough in this league, in certain sports, to hire an assistant coach," Babcock told me last month, the implication clear.
Later in the interview, he spoke of the pressure he felt hiring six coaches during his two-plus years as athletic director at Cincinnati, his only previous AD experience.
"The thing is, if you whiff a few times in a row … you're turning over coaches every three years, you're missing a recruiting class and having to start over from scratch," he said, "and before long, if you miss on two or three in a row, you're in a 10- to 15-year hole."
Finally, on the future of ACC basketball with newcomers Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Louisville: "It's going to be big-boy basketball here. It already is, but it's not going to get any easier."
Johnson gets it. He doesn't resent the questions about his job fitness and appreciates Babcock's plight. He is nothing if not a realist.
"I'm really proud of the way the guys have fought and competed all year long," he said. "Obviously it's been a frustrating year for us all, the team, and me and our fans. I understand that."
The year figures to end Wednesday, but even if the Hokies advance, that won't "save" Johnson's job. Babcock must and will survey a much larger landscape, and we'll likely learn his decision within a week.
"It's just part of the job," Johnson said. "That's what it is right now, and that's what I'm facing. … I'm not on the administration side. I'm just trying to coach the team the best I can."