CWS Finals Baseball

Arizona head coach Jay Johnson watches Coastal Carolina celebrate their 4-3 victory to win the championship after Game 3 of the NCAA College World Series baseball finals in Omaha, Neb., Thursday, June 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Ted Kirk) ORG XMIT: NEPS133

Every Monday morning for the last six seasons, Arizona’s baseball coaches gathered in a conference room. Behind a retractable screen, about 30 feet of whiteboards stretched across one of the walls. The team’s assistants sat there, watching, as Jay Johnson planned ahead with a dry erase marker.

On the whiteboards, Johnson wrote down practice structures for the upcoming month, week and day. He specified what kind of batting practice the team would take that afternoon, depending on the opposing pitchers the next weekend. He updated future recruiting depth charts, and he detailed what Arizona needed to reach the College World Series, maintaining an organization method he used his entire coaching career.

“Every square foot of that thing can be filled by the end of the meeting,” said Ray McIntire, Arizona’s director of operations from 2016-18. “Usually, we're just sitting there taking pictures of it trying to make sure we don't lose all the information.”

The whiteboards followed Johnson from his days as an assistant at Point Loma Nazarene and San Diego. They grew as he became the head coach at Nevada and then Arizona. Along the way, Johnson formed a reputation for crafting prolific lineups, recruiting highly-ranked classes and developing players, all of which attracted LSU during its recent coaching search.

At the end of a month-long process, LSU signed Johnson, 44, to a five-year contract late last week. He succeeded coach Paul Mainieri, who retired after 15 seasons, making Johnson the school’s fourth baseball coach since it became a national power. LSU will introduce him during a press conference at 4:30 p.m. Monday inside Alex Box Stadium.

Much of Johnson’s rise has stemmed from relentless preparation throughout his career. He learned how to coach hitters. He formed game plans for every opposing reliever. He spent hours pouring over scouting reports, and he analyzed mounds of game film, never quite satisfied with the results, always searching for an edge until he found one.

“The only thing I ever heard of him watching outside of game film,” said McIntire, who also spent two years at Nevada, “was ‘Designated Survivor’ with his wife.”

After graduating from Point Loma Nazarene, Johnson spent three years as an assistant coach. PLNU’s head coach, Scott Sarver, constantly told San Diego coach Rich Hill to hire Johnson before someone else plucked him away, saying, “He’ll make a difference in your program.” Hill finally listened in 2005, after Johnson had spent one season as the head coach at PLNU.

Johnson grew up in Oroville, California, started his college career at Shasta Community College and played second base after he transferred to PLNU. He had never spent time at the Division I level, and though he exuded a passion for baseball, San Diego pitching coach and recruiting coordinator Eric Valenzuela felt skeptical.

“We're trying to get to a regional and beyond that,” Valenzuela said. “I was still a young coach, so I was nervous that when it came to the recruiting aspect of things, we didn't go backward.”

About a week after Johnson started, he and Valenzuela talked about recruiting. Johnson told him he didn’t care that his highest level of experience came from a Christian liberal arts school in San Diego. He was determined to recruit the best players and develop them once they reached campus.

“We've got a good one right here,” Valenzuela thought after their conversation.

Over the next eight seasons, Johnson helped San Diego reach six NCAA tournaments. Johnson, who later became the recruiting coordinator after Valenzuela left for San Diego State, finished a class ranked No. 1 in the nation and another ranked No. 2 by Baseball America as he signed future NL MVP Kris Bryant.

Johnson's reputation for developing hitters began to form as he coached Bryant and the Toreros led their conference in hitting six times. Johnson dedicated himself to baseball, eating meals in his car and changing clothes in parking lots.

Once, later in his tenure, Hill went to Johnson's house and saw two whiteboards in the living room. One had NCAA tournament projections. The other displayed recruiting depth charts. Wrappers from a local mexican restaurant littered the corner.

“I know he hadn't turned on the oven since he moved in,” Hill said.

Johnson tailored his coaching style to every player on the team, figuring out what the individual needed to succeed. When he joined San Diego’s staff, Logan Gelbrich was a sophomore catcher who earned a starting role because of his defense. Gelbrich’s bat wrapped around the outside of the baseball, causing him to roll over pitches. He swung at balls. Valenzuela said he “couldn’t hit a lick.”

Johnson changed Gelbrich’s stance and approach. In addition to typical drills, Johnson arranged an offset screen. It made pitches travel deeper into the strike zone, forcing Gelbrich to swing inside the ball, and Johnson instructed him to backspin balls off a tee to improve his trajectory. They also reconsidered Gelbrich’s mindset in the on-deck circle.

“It was probably the most comprehensive look at baseball from an offensive perspective that I've ever seen,” Gelbrich said, later adding: “It felt empowering to be a hitter in that program.”

By Gelbrich’s junior season in 2007, San Diego hosted an NCAA regional for the first time. After losing its first game, San Diego faced elimination. Gelbrich approached the plate in the top of the ninth inning. San Diego trailed Minnesota by three runs.

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Gelbrich hunted a fastball on the outer half of the plate, the pitch Johnson had trained him to look for during their drills. He watched four pitches. Then he homered to tie the game. San Diego later lost in the bottom of the 10th inning.

“That moment is very singular and connected to Jay because it is symbolic of what it is we were trying to do,” Gelbrich said. “It wasn't just ‘go up there and hit.’

“There's no hope and pray with Coach Johnson. It's executing a plan. And it's powerful.”

Years later, in 2014, Johnson became the head coach at Nevada. After his first season, he recruited a junior college pitcher named Zach Wilkins. They knew each other through Wilkins’ older brother, who played for Johnson over a decade earlier on a travel team.

During his recruitment, Wilkins went to a game between Nevada and San Diego State. After the final out, he said hello to Johnson. As they spoke, Johnson recalled the name of Wilkins’ girlfriend at the time, Cassie, a woman Wilkins had mentioned to him once. Wilkins committed the first week junior college players could join other programs.

“He cares about his players,” Wilkins said. “I felt that right away.”

As the head coach at Nevada, Johnson earned Mountain West coach of the year in 2015. The Wolfpack went 41-15 and won their first conference championship. They finished first in the country in on-base percentage, second in slugging percentage and third in batting average.

Arizona hired Johnson that summer, and in his first season, the team came within one game of winning a national championship. After Arizona lost to Coastal Carolina in the 2016 College World Series finals, McIntire said Johnson went back to recruiting. Two of his last five classes ranked within the top-5 nationally, according to Collegiate Baseball Newspaper.

Though Arizona only made the College World Series once over the next four full seasons and twice missed the NCAA tournament, the team consistently finished near the top of the country in multiple offensive categories as Johnson developed the lineup.

At Arizona, as he had throughout his career, Johnson constantly watched videos of pitchers. He designed batting practice for whoever Arizona faced during the weekend series, cranking the pitching machine up to 95 mph or angling screens to replicate left-handers as he created plans to face everyone on the opposing staff. Wilkins thought he didn’t sleep.

"His players and his coaching staff are extremely well prepared on game day," Hill said, "much more than the opponent they're facing."

Blending multiple styles and unusual for a West Coast team in its power, Arizona led the Pac-12 in batting average, doubles, on-base percentage, runs and slugging percentage in 2017. Two years later, it finished ahead of every other Power Five teams in runs per game, slugging percentage and on-base percentage. This year, it scored the most runs in the country with 537, and Arizona returned to the College World Series.

Earlier this season, Wilkins faced Johnson’s team. After pitching at Nevada, Wilkins had spent two years on Johnson’s staff as a graduate assistant. He then became the pitching coach at Dixie State — a job Johnson recommended him for — and he suspected Arizona might score 30 runs by the end of the weekend.

During the final game of the series, Dixie State led 4-1 in the fifth inning. Wilkins thought it needed to score at least two or three more runs, if not four or five. It did not. Arizona came back to win the game.

“It's not fun facing a Jay Johnson lineup,” Wilkins said. “There's never a break. You could have a 5-0 lead in the seventh inning, and you just know at some point those hitters are going to put something together. They're going to give you a battle the last nine outs of the game.”

With Johnson now at LSU, McIntire suspects the whiteboards will come with him. They have grown in size and scope the farther he climbed through the profession, always the base of his preparation for games.

LSU hopes Johnson will win the school's next national title, banking on his postseason experience, recruiting reputation and history of prolific offenses to end a 12-year drought. Johnson does, too.

Once, back when they were both at Nevada, Johnson told McIntire he wanted to win two national championships during his career. Everything he wrote on the whiteboards were steps toward reaching that goal.

“Not just one,” McIntire said. “He doesn't want it to be a fluke. Everyone who's worked under him has the feeling like it's bound to happen. It's a matter of when.”

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com