CWS Coaches Baseball

Arizona coach Jay Johnson speaks alongside Miami coach Jim Morris, right, during a College World Series coaches' news conference at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., Friday, June 17, 2016.

Scott Sarver is up front about how big a fan he is of Jay Johnson, the man who Friday was officially named LSU’s new baseball coach.

Sarver coached Johnson at little Point Loma Nazerene University in San Diego, a 3,000-enrollment NAIA private school. He gave him his first break into coaching as an assistant in 2002. He quickly trusted Johnson to run Point Loma’s practices as Sarver, running a program with a shoestring budget, worked as a landscaping contractor to make ends meet.

“I’d say, ‘I want these four things covered’ ” at practice, Sarver said. “It would be covered and with great attention to detail. Jay learned things very quickly. He just had this innate ability to understand it.”

Then Sarver sent Johnson packing, across town to the University of San Diego to work for Rich Hill, who has won over 1,000 games over 30-plus seasons coaching the Toreros. Not to run Johnson off, but because Sarver saw how good a coach he would become.

“I would constantly tell Rich, ‘You’ve got to hire this guy,’ ” Sarver said. “ ‘You need to get him before he gets established. He’ll make a difference in your program.’ ”

Hill listened to Sarver. As USD’s recruiting coordinator, Johnson helped the Toreros sign the nation’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class in 2008 and the No. 2 class in 2010. The latter included Kris Bryant, the 2016 National League MVP with the Chicago Cubs.

It is said Johnson’s strengths are recruiting and hitting. Several of his teams at Arizona, where he spent the past six seasons, and his previous head coaching stop at Nevada, ranked among the nation’s best in both categories, including this year’s Wildcats team that made its second College World Series trip under his direction.

A return to the College World Series, where LSU hasn’t been since 2017, will be the understood mandate for its new coach.

Sarver made no qualms about saying that’s the least LSU fans should expect with Johnson running the program.

“I have zero doubt in my mind you’ll get multiple national championships with him unless something happens that I’m just not able to foresee,” Sarver said. “He’s someone special. And he will not break the rules.”

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Johnson, who will be introduced Monday afternoon at Alex Box Stadium at a news conference followed by a meet-and-greet with hopeful Tiger fans, said in a statement released by the school that he viewed the LSU job as “the opportunity of a lifetime.”

One could argue that Johnson already had a job pretty close to that at Arizona. That program has been one of college baseball’s bluebloods even longer than LSU, with a string of four CWS titles reaching back into the 1970s and 18 total trips to Omaha, the same number as the Tigers.

What made Johnson come? Ultimately, Sarver said, it was for an even bigger challenge than the one he had in Tucson.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Sarver said. “But I think it comes down to this: At some point you have to do what your heart tells you to do. There was nothing wrong at Arizona. He loved the place and the people. But he has that challenge-type thing that says, ‘I’m going to do this because it’s hard, not because it’s going to make my life easier, but because it’s going to make my life even harder.’ I know that sounds bizarre, but that’s how his mind works. He wants to take on a challenge because it’s hard.”

The challenge at LSU may be stiffer, not because the program doesn’t have the tools to win but because of the competition. The Southeastern Conference is chocked full of even more programs than the Pac-12 that can contend for league and national honors, with three of them making it to the CWS this year. The facilities are better across the board in the SEC. And the expectations, especially at LSU, are enormous.

Not that those expectations are greater than Johnson’s own, Sarver insisted.

“I said to Jay a couple of days ago: ‘Are the LSU fans’ expectations any higher than yours?’ They’re not,” Sarver said. “Jay’s like me in that we hate losing far more than we enjoy the winning.

“He takes every loss very, very hard. We used to work on that. ‘Here’s the loss. Here’s our grief time. What are we going to do to fix it?’ That was so much fun coaching with Jay. We called it ‘breaking it down.’ Here’s where we were, here’s what we did, take all those details and put it on a whiteboard or a notepad somewhere and make sure they don’t happen again.”

In an interview at the 2016 CWS, Johnson admitted he obsessively checks the national RPI rankings “like 17 times a day” during the season. If there are gym rats in basketball, Sarver said Johnson is a “field rat” when it comes to the way baseball consumes him.

“He doesn’t find pleasure in going out and playing golf,” Sarver said. “He can’t. He gets pleasure out of filling out a lineup. That’s pretty darn cool to have.”

Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com

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