February 27, 2024

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Arizona’s Jay Johnson fits right in with elite coaches who preceded him

Arizona baseball has only five coaches in the last 72 seasons, dating to when Frank Sancet in 1950 was elevated from assistant coach to replace J.F. “Pop” McKale, also the school’s athletic director at the time.

Arizona’s football program is on its 15th head coach since 1950.

McKale coached the baseball program for 26 seasons (from 1922-49) before Sancet replaced him. Factoring McKale’s tenure, the school incredibly has employed only six baseball coaches in almost a century.

Arizona baseball coaching is not a revolving door compared to football, which of course has more stakes involved being the top revenue-producing sport.

TUCSON SUPER REGIONAL

Ole Miss (44-20) vs. Arizona (43-15)

Best-of-three at Hi Corbett Field

Game One: Friday, 6 p.m.

Game Two: Saturday, 7 p.m.

Game Three: Sunday, 6 p.m. (if necessary)

But the way Sancet and Jerry Kindall developed the program in their combined 47 years in the modern era, it is definitely not a program void of pressure to succeed.

Jerry Stitt had the unenviable task of replacing Kindall, who coached Arizona to three College World Series titles. Certainly a worthy coach, Stitt’s tenure lasted only five seasons because his performance was routinely compared to Kindall.

Stitt, who had only one losing season out of his five, is revered by the community, including his former players, and is respected for his budget-crunching work as Pima Community College’s assistant athletic director. He is legendary in his own way.

Five baseball coaches at Arizona since 1950 translates to an average tenure of 14.4 years with Sancet (23 years as coach) and Kindall (24) serving well beyond that mark.

Andy Lopez coached Arizona to its fourth CWS title during his 14-year career with the Wildcats.

Jay Johnson fits in with all of them despite this being only his sixth year with the program.

“This place has a long-standing tradition of the greatest coaches and players that really our game has ever seen,” Johnson said during his introductory press conference on June 8, 2015. “That’s humbling to be a part of that. It’s a national brand.”

Jay Johnson shortly after his hire in 2015 standing with (left to right) Jerry Stitt, the late Jerry Kindall and Andy Lopez (Arizona Athletics photo)

Johnson, 44, is now coveted as a young coach at Arizona similar to women’s basketball coach Adia Barnes, 44, men’s tennis coach Clancy Shields, 34, women’s golf coach Laura Ianello, 41, and men’s golf coach Jim Anderson, 40. Hard to imagine any other athletic department in the nation having such an array of young coaching talent.

Arizona has already reached the CWS final series under Johnson (in 2016, his first season), he has achieved more than 200 wins at the school and he led the Wildcats to an outright Pac-12 title this season for the first time since 1992, when Kindall coached the program in the Six-Pac.

Johnson is two wins from reaching the CWS again. It took Kindall seven seasons and Lopez 11 to reach their second CWS with Arizona.

Imagine Johnson’s career at Arizona if he surpasses Kindall’s 24 years with the program. He would only be 63 at that point.

Time will tell if his effectiveness as a players’ coach will continue to be as strong as it is today if he endures that long at Arizona. No reason to believe he can’t. He certainly knows how to relate to today’s player, a major reason why Arizona has achieved its high level of success under him in a relatively short time.

“You have the competitive side of it during games, and sometimes he’ll bust out a few jokes even when you’re in a tight game,” Arizona center fielder Donta’ Williams said. “He’ll sit up there and ask, ‘Are you having fun?’ It could be a 5-1 ballgame we’re losing and it’s, ‘Are you having fun?’

“The feelings and stuff (are) loose in the dugout. There could be times where things aren’t going well, but he has the trust in us and we have the trust in him that we could get it done.”

Jay Johnson’s coaching record in six years at Arizona is 206-111 (.650 winning percentage) (Arizona Athletics photo)

Arizona (43-15) enters the Tucson Super Regional against Ole Miss (44-20) on Friday having won 11 of its last 13 games creating the same feeling as Lopez’s late-season run in 2012 and Johnson’s magical immediate impact in 2016.

Johnson mentioned that he and his staff — one of the nation’s best with pitching coach Nate Yeskie and assistant Dave Lawn — have developed a “blueprint” for the program “to play well in any type of baseball game.”

“I think this team’s exceeded expectations relative to preparation, meaning it’s been elite,” he said.

That preparation includes little or no rest for Johnson, Yeskie and Lawn throughout the season, and during their non-stop recruiting effort to beat Pac-12 rivals ASU, UCLA, Oregon and Oregon State for top West Coast talent.

When asked about Johnson’s coaching style, Williams said, “Competitor, mentor … um, he doesn’t sleep.”

“He’s taught a lot of leadership in being able to move as a team and becoming as one,” Williams said. “I feel like that’s a great characteristic moving on after playing here. Just being a human and having a good personality, being able to respect people … great characteristics that we learn here.

“I’m forever grateful for him.”

Arizona continues to be a college baseball brand under Johnson, and that draws alumni and the fan base even closer to him.

The Wildcats have the same image nationally as Ohio State in football or Kentucky in basketball because of their College World Series championships under Kindall and Lopez and their 17 CWS appearances since Sancet became coach in 1950.

The program averages a CWS appearance once every 4.2 years in that span. The elite preparation by his players, as Johnson puts it, has Arizona in a good position to reach its third CWS appearance in the last nine years.

“I’ve said this time and time again, that the things that have made us successful throughout the year, whether it was the Frisco (Texas) Classic, being the Pac-12 champions, winning 20 or whatever games in the last 24 games (actually 22 of the last 26), those are the same things that are gonna make us successful this weekend,” Johnson said.

“This team has the maturity to understand that and do a really good job to have the self discipline to focus on the right thing. That’s really where we’ve put our mindset, and I have complete trust in them to continue to do that.”

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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District