Greg Byrne reserved a small Courtyard Marriott conference room at San Diego’s hotel circle and introduced himself to Nevada Wolf Pack baseball coach Jay Johnson.
The two had spoken twice on the phone in June 2015, but on this day they did much more than talk. They listened. Byrne, accompanied by Arizona associate athletic director Mike Ketcham, met with Johnson for almost four hours.
What’s the famous movie line? You had me at hello?
About 15 minutes into the job interview, Byrne and Ketcham caught each other’s eye and nodded all but imperceptibly .
This is our guy.
Once Byrne and Ketcham left Johnson at the Courtyard Marriott, their mission to replace retired UA baseball coach Andy Lopez was not complete. At least one more interview was scheduled, but it was like garbage time in a one-sided basketball game.
“I knew Jay would get that job as soon as Arizona contacted him; I knew he would knock them out,” remembers Dave Lawn, then the pitching coach at Nevada and now Johnson’s pitching coach at Arizona. “He understands APR and RPI. He’s articulate. He can spread 11.7 scholarships to 27 players in his head. He’s got a plan and he’s able to articulate it.”
Eleven months later, Johnson and Lawn gathered the UA baseball team near the outfield wall at Oregon’s PK Park. With a tense 5-4 victory, the Wildcats assured themselves an unexpected berth in the NCAA Tournament. They finished a modest 16-14 in the wickedly difficult Pac-12, but they were nobody’s idea of a team that was about to make the Road to Omaha the ride of a lifetime.
Nobody except Johnson.
“He turned to me that afternoon at Oregon and said, ‘We’re about to go off,’” Lawn says now. “Everybody else thought we were laying in the weeds, but that’s not what Jay thought.”
Over the next five weeks, Arizona would go 16-3. The Cats would go 2-0 in Tucson, 4-0 in Hawaii, 3-1 in Louisiana, 2-0 in Mississippi and 5-2 in Nebraska. The Wildcats would survive two elimination games, 48 hours of rain delays, and on June 30 found themselves playing Coastal Carolina in a winner-take-all, national championship game.
The Chanticleers won in a heart-thumping finish, 4-3.
“I’m at peace with it,” Johnson said a few days before Christmas. “But I think about it every day.”
In his first season at Arizona, which included drawing a record 18,039 fans for a three-game series against Arizona State, Johnson coached a club Pac-12 coaches predicted to finish ninth to a 49-23 record and, Johnson says, with emphasis, “to the last game of the year.”
As such, Johnson is the Star’s choice as Tucson’s 2016 Sports Figure of the Year.
Arizona’s 2016 baseball season was a story of crazy and good.
In a baseball sense, it was crazy to expect the Wildcats to do much more than match the previous two non-playoff seasons, in which they went 21-39 in the Pac-12. Lopez, recovering from major heart surgery, tried without much success to restore a roster that had been depleted after winning the 2012 College World Series.
Good? Second baseman Zach Gibbons hit .385 and led the NCAA in hits. Previous journeyman starter Nathan Bannister went 12-2. Third baseman/pitcher Bobby Dalbec survived a yearlong hitting slump to win 11 games, many of them when the Wildcats were desperate for a win. And right-fielder Cody Ramer, who Johnson insists was the best player in the Pac-12, hit .348.
“When I was preparing for my interview with Greg Byrne, I studied the roster and tried to evaluate why Arizona was coming off a disappointing season,” says Johnson. “I didn’t take it at face value; the more research I did, the more I thought there were some guys that could play better than they had at any point in their careers.
“And that’s absolutely what happened.”
Lawn, who turned down an offer to replace Johnson as Nevada’s head coach, chose to move to Tucson because Johnson saw few barriers. Indeed, Johnson speaks without prompting about “Arizona’s baseball lineage” and that he is eager to do his part to carry on the tradition.
“A lot of coaches go to a new place and say, ‘When we get our guys here, we’ll start to win,’” says Lawn. “But that’s not Jay. He said, ‘Screw that; these are our guys. We’ll win now.’”
Only once did the Wildcats of ’16 appear to go off the rail. They were swept in an agonizing series at Utah in early April, blowing the lead in the eighth or ninth inning three days in succession. They fell to 3-6 in the Pac-12.
Two days later, using Dalbec as a starter in a rare Tuesday appearance, the Wildcats beat No. 22 BYU, and it was as though the Utah series was forgotten.
“Jay’s never in the tank,” says Lawn. “There’s never a hangover from the previous day. Losing those three at Utah might’ve put any team away for the rest of the year. Instead, it was our turning point.”
Johnson, who is 39, grew up in small-town Oroville (pop: 15,000) in Northern California. His father, Jerry, has been a career high school coach. His mother. Beverly, is a human-resources director at an Oroville complex. “My mom’s a grinder,” he says. “My dad’s a grinder.”
The son learned well.
An undersized tailback, point guard and second baseman at Oroville High School who gained 1,198 yards as a senior, Johnson wears jersey No. 2 at Arizona. He believes No. 2 reflects a battler, someone of a smaller stature (Johnson is probably 5-foot-7) overcoming the odds.
“People have told me I’m too small,” he says with a smile. “I don’t think so.”
He studies football coaches as much as those in a baseball dugout. He has read Alabama coach Nick Saban’s book. He is intrigued by the success of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. In the next life, Johnson says he’ll coach football, not baseball, because he is drawn to the constant battle of Xs vs. Os.
“Being in the middle of a one-run game in the seventh inning is my favorite place to be,” he says.
Favorite movie? “Remember the Titans.”
Favorite baseball player? Charlie Hustle, Pete Rose.
What can Johnson do for an encore in Year 2 at Arizona? He won’t be playing much golf.
“On the rare occasions Jay plays golf, he starts looking at his phone at the ninth hole,” says Lawn.
“By No. 11, he’s on the phone. By No. 12, he’s in the clubhouse, working on next year.”