New LSU head baseball coach Jay Johnson: “This is LSU. This is THE place in college baseball”

PHOTO by Jonathan Mailhes

Jay Johnson knows what he left behind after six seasons and two College World Series trips as Arizona’s head baseball coach.

“I left a team that accomplished a lot of things, and they did it with, as I said, great fundamentals, a competitive attitude and were great people and character,” said Johnson, who met with the media Monday in the Alex Box Stadium Champions Club when he was introduced as 26th head baseball coach in LSU history replacing the retired Paul Mainieri. “The difficulty (in leaving) was relationships with players. I invest in the players, invest in the relationships and I invest in their process to be good.”

But then again, Johnson, a 44-year old native of Oroville, Calif. realizes what he’s stepping into, a six-time College World Series championship program that has tailed off since 2017 when it lost in the CWS national championship series to Florida.

“I didn’t come here for any other reason because this doesn’t come along but one time in your life,” said Johnson, who was 208-114 at Arizona and has a nine-year overall head coaching record of 317-172. “I view this opportunity to be the head baseball coach at LSU as the opportunity of my lifetime.

“This is LSU. This is THE place in college baseball. I’ve viewed LSU as college baseball.”

There were many factors why LSU athletic director Scott Woodward hired Johnson, who he described as the “most prepared coach in college.”

The obvious one is Johnson’s strength as a hitting coach, which made Arizona the best offensive team in college baseball.

The 2021 Wildcats, who finished 45-18 and won the Pac-10 championship and helped Johnson win Pac-10 Coach of the Year honors, were fourth in Division 1 in batting average (.325), first in hits (737), runs (537), doubles (145), and triples (30), and sixth in scoring (8.5 runs per game).

Also, Johnson is an exceptional recruiter. In his last three recruiting classes in 2020, 2019 and 2018 were ranked No. 4, No. 3 and No. 11 nationally respectively. His 2020 class featured 14 players from six states.

But Woodward, who noted hiring Johnson was easier than a usual coaching search because “there weren’t a lot of coaches on the market,” also said Johnson checked all the boxes of what he wants in a head baseball coach.

“I wanted to hire a teacher, someone who was passionate about our student-athletes and their success on the field, in the classroom and in the community,” Woodward said. “That’s Jay Johnson.

“I wanted to hire a winner, someone who had proven he knew how to build championship programs and bring them to Omaha. That’s Jay Johnson.

“Most of all, I wanted to hire someone who was ready, ready for this moment, ready for the expectations, ready to win championships, and there is nobody in the world who is more ready for this job than Jay Johnson because he’s been preparing for this moment for his entire life.”

Johnson said his previous coaching (Division I) stops (Arizona, Nevada) were rebuilds, but he viewed LSU differently.

 “I look at this (LSU) as a reboot,” Johnson said. “I say that because Paul (Mainieri) and his staff did a really nice job of bringing in talent.  We’re going to work hard to try to help them to play as well as they can.”

Mainieri, who attended Monday’s press conference along with LSU coaching legend Skip Bertman, told a Baton Rouge sports talk show Monday morning he spent six hours with Johnson over the weekend to discuss immediate decisions that need to be made managing the program.

“Jay is a bright guy and is going to make the right decisions,” Mainieri said. “He’s got a great plan and I think LSU fans should feel really good about the hands the LSU program is being put in.”

Johnson said his priority, even before hiring a coaching staff, is roster management. The NCAA deadline for players wishing to enter the transfer portal is Thursday and there are a handful of juniors waiting for the Major League Baseball draft on July 11-13.

“If we’re going to get to the College World Series, if we’re going to win a national championship, it’s because of the players and the roster,” Johnson said. “So, I’m spending 24 hours a day managing that at this point in time, and it’s exciting. It’s a really good challenge.

“I got on the phone, reached out to the roster. I don’t have a ton of answers or all of the answers for those guys at this point in time but start to develop a foundation and relationship of trust. I want to be fair. I want to give players an opportunity to figure out what is the best opportunity for them.”

Once Johnson has his roster projected – something he does not just for the immediate season but also a couple of years down the line – he will devote his full energy to hiring two assistants.

“You’d be really impressed at the amount of coaching talent that wants to come to LSU,” Johnson said. “I’ve had a lot of new best friends over the past five days. I’m talking to a lot of people. It is not a narrow search because it’s too important to get that right.

“We need a staff that can recruit at an elite level, meaning evaluating talent, evaluating players that are worthy of playing on this field, that have the makeup, character and ability to do that and do it in a way that’s going to help us win championships.

“And then from a development standpoint, finding a pitching coach, finding an assistant hitting coach that they (players) want to put their trust in to be developed to achieve their dream of being a major league player, and while they’re on their way to being a major league player, they’re helping LSU to win a lot of baseball games.”

After meeting with the media, LSU play-by-play announcer Chris Blair conducted a 30-minute interview with Johnson just behind Alex Box’s home plate before fans sitting in the stands. He was presented his No. 2 LSU jersey and a personalized Marucci baseball bat from Bertman and Mainieri.

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Ron Higgins

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