How Jay Johnson is approaching first days and months as LSU's baseball coach
BATON ROUGE — LSU baseball coach Jay Johnson arrived in a dark business suit Monday, and then he put on a purple LSU baseball cap.
"I don't think I can do it as well as Coach O, but 'Go Tigers," he said in reference to LSU football coach Ed Orgeron. "I'm honored to be here – incredibly honored and proud. It's beyond a dream come true."
Johnson, 44, left Arizona to become the Tigers' new coach. He replaces Paul Mainieri, who retired a month ago after 15 seasons at LSU.
"It is my pleasure to introduce the 26th LSU baseball coach, Jay Johnson," LSU athletics director Scott Woodward said. "No one is is more ready."
This was not Johnson's first time in the 10,326-seat stadium, where LSU led the nation in college baseball attendance from 1996-2019 with an average of more than 10,000 a game from 2010 on.
While on his way to a speaking engagement at the Louisiana Baseball Coaches Association convention in Lafayette as Arizona's baseball coach on the second weekend of January in 2020, Johnson and his wife Maureen stopped at Alex Box Stadium.
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"Nobody was here," Johnson told the Lafayette Daily Advertiser on Sunday night. "We just walked into the ballpark. There was a gate open on the side down the right-field corner, so we walked in and checked it out, took a couple of pictures. It's beautiful. And 18 months later, here we are. Very exciting."
The Johnsons had flown into New Orleans the night before and spent the night.
"The next morning, we drove to Lafayette and decided to stop," Johnson said. "After we looked at the Box, we walked on over to Tiger Stadium and checked her out a little bit."
Tiger Stadium was locked. The Johnsons found LSU largely desolate because most of the LSU Nation was in New Orleans for the national championship game that would be played the next Monday night — Jan. 13 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where the Tigers won over Clemson.
"I am very proud to be here," said Johnson, who landed in Baton Rouge on Saturday afternoon after agreeing to a five-year contract with LSU on Friday. "I'm very excited to be a part of LSU and the SEC and look at this as a great opportunity and great challenge."
Immediately after getting the job Thursday, Johnson got on the phone and has rarely been off it since. He called Mainieri, who just retired after 15 seasons with the Tigers, then Skip Bertman, who was LSU's coach from 1984-2001 and won five national titles from 1991-2000. He also has been in contact with current and former players.
"Indirectly, Skip has had a very big influence on my coaching life," Johnson said. "One of the first things I did when it was announced I was hired was call Skip. It was a very exciting time to be on the phone with him. For me, he's the king of college baseball. He's the greatest college baseball coach of my lifetime."
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Then he called former players Ben McDonald, Todd Walker, Ryan Theriot and Alex Bregman, among others.
"A lot of great players — a lot of notable alums," he said. "I’m very proud of where I’m at. I know where I’m at, and just trying to reach out to a lot of those people. And I know I have a lot more to get to. I’m very excited to do that."
Johnson will be trying to keep most of LSU's roster intact as the deadline for entering the NCAA transfer portal is Thursday.
"Really spent the majority of my time on the phone with the current roster and incoming recruits — relationship building and getting to know our team," he said. "I'm a relationship-based coach. There are things we're doing relative to roster management and where it's at that I'm going to have to work through here until we get to the first day of school.”
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Johnson, who was Arizona's coach from 2016-21, is familiar with some of LSU's top players from recruiting, including freshman shortstop Jordan Thompson of the San Diego area, freshman first baseman Tre Morgan of New Orleans, sophomore third baseman Cade Doughty of Denham Springs and left fielder Dylan Crews of Longwood, Florida, the Perfect Game national freshman of the year.
"I saw Dylan Crews a lot as he was going through high school," Johnson said. "He’s obviously a tremendous player. Morgan had a great freshman season. Jordan Thompson out of San Diego, I’m familiar with him. Cade Doughty was another guy I saw a lot of on the recruiting circuit."
Mainieri has spoken with Johnson about the roster.
"Really, I want the players to know that we’re starting over in terms of evaluations and all of those kinds of things," he said. "Won’t get a full judgment until we get into fall practice relative to what I think and move in the direction of being ready to go in February. There are guys on the roster who can make improvement both on the pitching side and on the hitting side, and I'm excited to be a part of that for them."
Johnson is also trying to hire a new recruiting coordinator, as Nolan Cain left last week for that post at Texas A&M, and a new hitting coach as Eddie Smith left to become coach at Utah Valley.
"It's the best kind of crazy is how I would call it," Johnson said.
Johnson and his wife had dinner Saturday night at the home of Dan Gaston, LSU's athletics director for facilities, who also works in baseball administration. But Johnson did not do a lot of socializing.
"I actually opened up my laptop and got my phone and set up on a table and went to work on a bunch of stuff," he said. "My wife was very good with getting acquainted. So I've got to work on my social skills, I guess. For me, it's about the work. We have a lot to do. I've been moving."
The Johnsons will be making a dramatic geographic move — not just a quick clandestine visit this time.
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“I love it. I’ve always been intrigued by this side of the country," said Johnson, an Oroville, California, native whose coaching career has been spent entirely in the West. "I’m very excited to be a part of LSU and the SEC and look at it as a great opportunity and great challenge.”