Da Boot Sports
By: David Penn
LSU Baseball coach Jay Johnson is about to begin his first season as the skipper of the Fighting Tigers. David Penn with Da Boot Sports sat down with Coach Johnson to learn first hand what Coach Johnson’s thoughts on becoming the Tigers head coach and his vision for the future of LSU Baseball. Coach Johnson spoke candidly about issues affecting college sports such as NIL and the transfer portal, what it’s like on the recruiting trail for LSU, the challenges ahead for LSU Baseball, and adjusting to life here in Louisiana.
**Click Below to listen**
Photos Below By: Michael Bacigalupi
**Jay Johnson Interview Transcript Below:
What has been the biggest personal adjustment since arriving in Baton Rouge?
Honestly, it’s been pretty smooth, and I know that’s a boring answer but I immerse myself in the work and the process of building a program or building a team and so things have felt very normal for me. I think in the outset, you just leave Omaha and if you’re there you’re obviously competing for a national championship with a group of players that did everything right in terms of buy-in and work. The difficulty to be saying Hey, I’m going to the next stop now, that was hard but everything else has been excitement. LSU is college baseball to me. Knowing the amount of work in front of us and diving into that hasn’t really felt that different to be honest with you so I’ve adjusted pretty quickly.
What has surprised you about the culture of Louisiana since taking the job?
Not a lot, again I sound really boring right now but I knew how passionate everyone was. I’ve mentioned this several times, this is the only place in the country I would’ve come and I mean that sincerely. It’s because of how much everybody cares about the Tigers here.You turn on an LSU football game on TV, it looks like the coolest place to watch a game or the best environment. You turn on a game at Alex Box and you see the amount of people and the purple and gold seats, the big scoreboard, the environment, it’s lived up to the hype and to what my expectation was. Culturally, the people, I had an expectation that the people would be really down to earth, very friendly, very supportive. I had a high expectation coming in and it's more than exceeded it. I’m very thankful for the people here making me feel welcome.
What was it that attracted you to LSU and the SEC?
I’m a very in the moment thinker, we’re trying to win a PAC-12 championship, trying to go to Omaha and compete for a national championship, and I was very laser focused on that all the way through until that wasn’t my job. I think a couple things stand out. When I was a young player in junior high, high school, and in college there was a fifty percent chance that if you turned on the college world series that you’d see a purple jersey running around the field and so that time span, that tradition you knew it was different. I paid close attention to Coach Bertman and how he did things as a leader, as a motivator, as a baseball person. Then, watching Coach Mainieri continue it and compete with them in recruiting a little bit and lose most of those battles you knew that there was something about this place. So, when you put the fan support, the tradition, the resources, the challenge at this time, we were a ninth place team in the SEC last year. I know everyone here wants to do better than that, I know the players want to do better than that. Digging in and having a chance to take that challenge of getting it back to the top in an era in college baseball where the SEC is clearly the best league, that’s really exciting to do. I’m really excited about that. It’s a murderer’s row of baseball. Yep!
Who helped mold the coach that you became?
I’ll give you two answers, the direct and the indirect. The direct: my dad, very successful high school football and track coach. My whole life this is all I’ve known my entire life. I think he could have coached in the NFL, he had that type of mind, work ethic, character, if he wanted to do that. It was a really good starting point growing up in that house. My college coach, Scott Sarber, after I was done playing gave me an opportunity to be an assistant coach and really dive in. Coach third base, run the offense, recruiting coordinator, 24 year olds don’t get to do that and I got to do that. I think that really helped me out. When I left, I was the head coach at Point Loma and then when I went to the University of San Diego to be the associate head coach, Rich Hill at USD probably had the biggest influence on me. I’ve long said that had he (Rich Hill) chosen to jump to a power 5 program that he would have been a multiple world series coach and a national championship coach. He really gave me a lot of autonomy to learn on the fly and a blueprint on how to do it. So, it was like the perfect situation that started to occur. Those are the three coaches that have impacted me the most. Externally, I’ve always paid attention to who were the best at what they do. Skip Bertman, I mean I really paid attention to him, I bought his video tape, “How to Win the Big One.” As a new young coach, I took things from that. Auggie Garrido in terms of mindset, in terms of mental game, in terms of fundamentals. Mike Gillespie, long time USC and UC Irvine coach, he was the best in-game coach that I ever coached against or played against. I love football, you can probably tell that as I’m talking about football, I pay attention to successful people like Bill Belichick, Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, I pay attention to all of them.
What is the recruiting pitch when you enter a young man’s living room?
I think a couple things. I think #1 every player that wants to come here, they also want to be a major league player, so showing them the pathway to help them do that and a legitimate successful track record of doing that. 8 players in the Majors this year in 2021, something we’re really proud of because it’s so hard to get there. You start there. I think then you go to you can’t get to the end of one hand to where you’re playing in front of 12,000 people almost every night in college baseball, that doesn’t exist everywhere. You get a chance to live a college baseball experience that less than half of one percent get to. You look at how passionate the people are about this that now in this world that we’re living in, a player gets a chance to create value for themself through the name, image, and likeness and the only way to do that is to have people that are interested in what you’re doing. There is no program in the country that has more interest in than what we’re doing. Winning makes your experience better and this is one place where you have a legitimate chance to go to the College World Series and win a national championship. Then you look at the academic side of it, maybe it’s the football success, the visibility, the university has become really popular in the last 20 years and has enhanced the academic profile. When you walk through an airport and there’s a purple and gold shirt on, you know what school that is. And lastly is my commitment or our commitment to say, “This is a key pivotal time when you’re transitioning to manhood and it’s going to develop and shape your life.” So, we’re going to get after it, on the field, off the field you’ll have our staff’s full commitment to help you to be ready to go off in life.
Being a west coast man, do you feel like you have increased the recruiting footprint for LSU?
I think that LSU has always been or had the ability to recruit nationally, it’s one of few schools I think you can do that. I think what I’ve always tried to do, whether it was Nevada, Arizona, or here, is what’s been the blueprint for the most successful teams at that school? The coach may change, the style of play may change, but the dynamic of putting the team together, you can gain a lot of wisdom from that. I think there is a lot of good players in Louisiana that have played at LSU and we’re going to get those guys. When you look at some of Skip’s best teams, Pail’s best teams, they had a national flavor to that. In the more immediate, we just played Ole Miss in the Super Regional. We just player Vanderbilt in the College World Series, the Friday starter for Ole Miss was from California, the short stop was from California, from Vanderbilt the catcher was from California, the third baseman was from California, the short stop was from Washington, that’s what the top of the SEC is right now. I think we have to beat the bushes to get the best players for us no matter where they come from, and I’m not locked in to 'I want west coast guys', that's a lot of hogwash. We need to put the best team together and that’s what our recruiting strategy is.
You’ve been known as a coach with a penchant for offense, how do you intend to improve the offense at LSU?
Well I think this team has an opportunity to be unique where we’re going to be able to overcome some mistakes to be able to win games based on some of the talent. You cannot win a national championship though or get to the college world series or get back to the top tier of the SEC unless we take what I call professional at bats in terms of our ability to manage the strike zone, hit mistakes, battle with two strikes, move the offense, and the fundamentals of doing those things. You can win any type of game, wind blowing in, wind blowing out, day or night game, big field, small field, we want to create a foundation of fundamentals those things that I said to be able to win close games against the best teams. There’s a whole other element to that when it comes to pitching and defense but offensively I think we have some real special talent that they need to get better at those things that I just mentioned and we’re working hard to do that.
What do you feel were the positives regarding the program when you arrived on campus?
Interest in the program is the forest thing that jumps off the page, the amount of people that care about it, I’ll be honest, I’m really looking forward to getting that first game in there under our belt. I just think that this doesn’t exist everywhere. I’ve coached at two places where relative to the west coast, we had a pretty good following but this is on a whole different planet from that, so I think that the home field advantage could be something that is special. I think looking at Major League Baseball right now, Alex Bregman, DJ LeMahiu, Aaron Nola, Kevin Gausman, that’s four of the best top 50 players in the big leagues and they played here and they’re proud to have played here and how well they want us to do is something that I think has been pretty cool.
What do you think you could improve upon after taking the job?
I think establishing a really clear path to winning through recruiting and through development and giving our players the blueprint of these are the things that we need to do and it will lead to success. I love coaching, I love putting a team together, I love building a team and just being really committed to that. With all of the other things that come along here, really be true to myself and stay in the things that I do well that can help our players and put them into position to be successful.
What is your perspective on multi sport athletes?
I’m all for it, I mean football/baseball seems to be the one that would come the most, I think it would be pretty cool if Coach Kelly and I worked together to where we had a guy playing in the college football playoff and playing in Omaha later in the year, I think that would be pretty awesome. You know, we have a 4 star football player that is committed to or has signed with us for baseball, he’s going to just play baseball, at least for now (knocks on desk) because he’s a pitcher and that’s why I’m knocking on wood. I’m excited to work with those guys, Brain Polian (LSU football special teams coordinator) and I are friends, he was the head coach at Nevada when I was the coach at Nevada and so I think we’ll definitely have some success working together.
Do you think the NIL will convince players to either enter college baseball as freshmen or continue past their junior season?
I think that it remains to be seen. I think that it can, I think that it depends on the player, where they’re picked, the amount of NIL opportunity that is created will be the determining factor in that. So I think it remains to be seen, I am excited about the things that we are starting to get going at LSU, we have players on our team that are taking advantage of it because of the interest that we have, and foundationally I think the more this goes along the better position we are going to be in for that to be a possibility. I think it’s exciting because I really believe in the college path and that being better for the player and so I hope that’s exactly what happens.
What is your policy of the transfer portal and how do you navigate the prospects that are available?
My opinion doesn’t matter because this is part of the dynamic, there is a lot of change going on in college sports now and so it’s like the old Money Ball line, “Adapt or die!” This year it helped us tremendously, I mean to be able to fill some needs on the roster, and I hope it continues to do that. The longer you go it probably balances itself out, but we have to have a plan we have to be deliberate about it. Sometimes you are recruiting your own players, and for me that’s not a sales pitch that is running a program the way it should be run. If you do that, then I’m confident and comfortable that we’ll be able to hold the core of our team, develop those guys, and then add the pieces that we need. My opinion doesn’t matter I guess.
If a player were to come to you and say, “Coach Johnson, I’m thinking about entering the portal.” What do you think your advice would be?
I would look at the situation for that player. I have to answers to it, it’s like ok, what is the situation now compared to what it projects to be? Is it a situation where maybe a guy is stuck behind two guys and he’s not going to play, that’s different than maybe a guy that wanted to play right away but he’s behind someone who got drafted in the first round and now it’s his time, you’d like to think that young people can see the difference in those two things because they are completely different circumstances. So I would probably educate them on that, but then there is another element, it’s like the Navy Seals (training program), if a guy wants to quit then he’s going to quit. You have to pay attention to how far down the ipe they are for that.
You brought in Jason Kelly as the new LSU pitching coach. What do you think of your current staff? Do you feel like anyone may be poised for a breakout?
Yes! First off, on Coach Kelly, a couple things really stand out to me about him and his qualities. #1, He’s incredibly intelligent, he’s devised a really good plan to develop, his ability to relate to players today is exceptional both recruits and these guys (current players). Our pitching staff needed him and specifically him, so he’s going to do a great job here. This staff, you know a lot of people talk about the offense, my opinion is the pitching staff out performed the offense in fall practice. There could be any number of reasons for that so I don’t want to jump to conclusions at this time. I think that the strength is in the depth and the question mark is in the returning experience, and it is what it is, but if you look at some of the well thought of teams, we’ll just call them highly ranked teams right now, there’s a lot of teams similar to us in that regard. A lot of pitching exited college baseball last year, so it’ll be interesting to see how it evolves.
Do you feel something can be done with scheduling that would expand the availability of baseball to other parts of the country?
I think it kind of has to stay where it is. A lot of people talk about models that have us playing in the summer so then the school year runs in the fall and spring and then we’ll play our season in the summer, so now you’re monitoring these guys on campus for 12 months. I don’t know if that is really fair to them. I would say I think we’re in the perfect spot, I wish we could do more, practice more, play more games, that type of thing, but I think we’re in the right spot. I know it’s not apples to apples in terms of it’s not the same for Michigan as it is for LSU or in warmer parts.
What’s it like to follow in the footsteps of the great coaches of the past at LSU?
It’s an honor, you know what I mean, I think I’m well prepared to do that. What I mean by that is I just did it at Arizona with Jerry Kindall and Andy Lopez, I have a lot of respect for those guys, those two are two of the best coaches in college baseball history. Coach Bertman is, in my opinion, the best college baseball coach in history. Coach Mainieri is a Hall of Fame coach and a national champion in his own right, so I’m just honored and that’s how I look at it.
What do you feel LSU fans can expect the trademark will be for a Jay Johnson coached team?
Fundamentals. Very simply, pitchers throwing strikes, controlling the ball on defense, managing the zone on offense, and competitiveness. I think they’ll (LSU fans) really appreciate how our players value winning and that the actions they take will reflect that, a team of really good character, and that doesn’t just mean choir boys but that means the ability to make decisions that impact winning and consistency.