Jay Johnson’s Top Five Immediate Tasks At LSU

The news broke last night, and this morning it’s official – Arizona head baseball coach Jay Johnson is now LSU head baseball coach Jay Johnson.

“I am humbled and honored to be the head baseball coach at LSU and serve as the steward of the next generation of national champions,” Johnson said in the statement put out by the athletic department this morning. “LSU is a phenomenal University and athletics department, and I am very thankful to Scott Woodward and Stephanie Rempe for entrusting me to lead this storied program into its next winning chapter. I view this as the opportunity of my lifetime and will do everything in my power to have our team playing a brand of baseball that makes everyone at LSU, the Baton Rouge community, and the entire state of Louisiana incredibly proud. Geaux Tigers!”

On the message boards and social media platforms, the fans seem to be warming up to Johnson as LSU’s coach, though he was a bit of a dark horse for the job as lots of other names – Tennessee’s Tony Vitello, Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin, East Carolina’s Cliff Godwin, Ole Miss’ Mike Bianco, former Oregon State head coach Pat Casey, Florida’s Kevin O’Sullivan, Louisville’s Dan McDonnell, among them – had been bandied about with more gusto than Johnson. People tend to adjust quickly to things it’s in their interest to accept and support, and that’s what’s happening here. If you’re an LSU baseball fan you’re going to want to believe Johnson is a great coach who’ll give the Tigers a great future, and you’re seeing that even from people who wanted somebody else.

From our perspective, Johnson was the coach we figured LSU would get. His contract situation was ripe for LSU to grab him, his record at Arizona and at previous stops indicated he can win immediately and he can also build a program, he’s a young, energetic coach and he’s shown he can swim with the big fish. When you’ve won your conference’s Coach of the Year award at two different stops in two different conferences, it’s a good bet you’ve got talent.

And getting him wouldn’t involve trying to outbid giants of college athletics to steal their coach away. Not when LSU just posted an $81 million athletic department loss last year thanks to COVID – a loss they won’t likely fully recover from after alienating so many long-time fans and boosters with the rampant wokeism the university is consumed with.

LSU still has a lot of money, but throwing out $2-3 million for its next baseball coach, even for a spendthrift athletic director like Scott Woodward, was going to be unlikely.

So it’s Johnson, and that’s a good hire. But five things need to be done right away to make sure it’s a great hire.

1. Get the players on board

This is an obvious thing, and we doubt it’s a problem. LSU has a team full of good kids who really want to win, and there seems to be a sense on that club that good things are about to happen given the wealth of talent due to come back next year. But that college baseball transfer portal has swelled of late, and with the NCAA granting everybody a free transfer year you’re essentially looking at free agency in college baseball right now. That means while you might think you have a lot of talent in your program, it’s only contingent on making sure your guys stick with you. Johnson is going to want to work the phones and sell himself and his agenda to the kids, and that’s going to be interesting – by now, they’re spread all over the country taking part in the various collegiate summer leagues.

There is a bit of a margin for error, though, because at just about every position other than catcher LSU is actually facing something of a logjam. Tre Morgan at first base and Dylan Crews in right field are cast in stone, but outside of them there are multiple players – returners as well as signees; Johnson is inheriting the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class from Paul Manieri – who’ll be competing for jobs in the fall. So he can afford to bleed a little bit, at least with respect to position players.

One immediately positive sign as to Johnson’s magnetic pull is that last night Mikey Romero, a shortstop from Menifee, California ranked as the top middle infielder in California for the 2022 recruiting class (meaning he’ll be a college freshman for the 2023 baseball season), pulled his commitment to Arizona and switched to LSU on the news Johnson would be the coach. That’s a good indication LSU’s current players and recruits will want to stick around.

2. Can’t have a pitching coach fast enough

But the big issue for Johnson is going to be pitching. For those who look at his record at Arizona and notice that his Wildcats were national runners-up in 2016, then a regional participant in 2017, and then just missed the tournament in 2018 and 2019 before bouncing back to a CWS appearance this year, the x-factor in that roller coaster ride was pitching. The two Omaha-bound teams had it, at least a little, and the three others most certainly did not.

Johnson’s background is that he’s a hitting guru par excellence. That means he needs a great pitching coach. He had one at Arizona the last two seasons (counting the aborted 2020 season) in Nate Yeskie, but Yeskie just hooked up with Jim Schlossnagle’s new coaching staff at Texas A&M. It seems Johnson and Yeskie had a tepid relationship, even though Arizona’s pitchers did get better under Yeskie’s tutelage.

LSU has a pitching coach left over from Mainieri’s staff in Alan Dunn, but the fans would probably throw a fit if Dunn was retained and the word we hear is that’s highly unlikely in any event. What has been reported is the possibility former Texas A&M head coach Rob Childress, who built some scary-good pitching staffs in his time in College Station and made 12 straight NCAA Regional appearances (2007-19) before getting the axe after a rough year this year, might be an option. Childress would bring a lot to the table not just because he’s a fairly elite pitching coach, but he’s also a long-time SEC West coach and he’d add a knowledge of the league Johnson wouldn’t have having been exclusively a West Coast coach to date.

Another somewhat local name we really like is Southern Miss’ pitching coach Christian Ostrander, a Monroe native who’s had Top 20 pitching staffs the last several years at USM, and who was highly successful at Louisiana Tech before that.

Getting a pitching coach fast is key because…

3. That pitching staff needs work.

Watching the College World Series the last few days, it seems really obvious that the teams who made it to Omaha this year have pitching staffs a cut above what LSU had from the standpoint of stuff. Everybody at the CWS can bring out arm after arm capable of 95 MPH fastballs, while LSU had maybe three or four pitchers with that kind of velocity.

LSU’s best pitcher this year was Landon Marceaux, who’s more of a 92-93 MPH guy. Marceaux is likely to be a high pick and he’s off to the pro ranks, as is Jaden Hill, the other high-level arm on the staff who was injured early on and missed the bulk of the season. It’s fairly likely the top reliever, Devin Fontenot, who’s one of the few arms on the staff capable of a 95 MPH fastball, is also headed to the pros; we’ll see what happens in the draft next month.

Beyond that, you have some good young arms who need development. Will Hellmers was a Freshman All-America, though he’s a rather pedestrian arm from a velocity-and-stuff standpoint. Hellmers is a midweek or Sunday pitcher, or maybe a long or middle reliever; he’s not an ace. Garrett Edwards, Javen Coleman and Ty Floyd have the kind of stuff to maybe get there, but all of them are wildly consistent at this point. Some of the other freshman pitchers from this past season, like Blake Money, Theo Millas and Michael Fowler, might be a little damaged from a confidence standpoint.

And other than junior-to-be lefthander James Hasty, who badly needs to improve his control if he’s going to be a reliable bullpen option, it’s questionable whether any of the veteran pitchers will be back. For some of them, it might be better for all concerned if they moved on. Johnson will certainly inquire whether A.J. Labas and Mikhail Hilliard have interest in returning, and they’re both quality SEC pitchers, but neither of them have Friday night stuff.

LSU has a host of interesting recruits set to come in, but we won’t know the full picture there until after the draft has come through and assumedly done some damage. One of them, perhaps left-handed fireballer Brock Selvidge from Arizona or Colorado hurler Cole Lansville, could be that stud Friday arm. But Johnson is going to want to scour the transfer portal and see if he can’t skim off two or three of the best arms available to beef up his pitching staff.

4. Make a plan for Alex Box Stadium.

The thing LSU fans will have to come to terms with is that in the past few years it isn’t just on the field where LSU has slipped a bit in comparison to other SEC schools. Alex Box Stadium, which when it opened in 2009 was considered the showplace of all of college baseball, is no longer the state of the art. The Box has good facilities for the players, so major improvements there aren’t necessarily an immediate need, but the fan experience has definitely gotten stale. Watch what’s going on in Fayetteville or Starkville, or even in Oxford, and it’s clear the Box needs to kick it up a notch.

Does this mean adding suites? Does it mean doing something with outfield seating? Adding amenities? Possibly so. We’re not going to take on the project of telling Johnson or the LSU athletic department what they need to do, but part of renewing the push to re-establish LSU as the premier program in college baseball is going to be that facility reclaiming its status as a showplace, and waiting on that project is a bad idea. Get some ideas on the board and start working on them.

5. Say hi to the couyons.

Lastly, there’s the cultural part. At LSU this is probably more important than at other places, because let’s face it – Phoenix, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City and Charlotte are more or less indistinguishable other than the weather, but Baton Rouge is a little different kettle of fish. There will probably be a bit of a culture shock to overcome here.

On the other hand, as we said above, LSU’s baseball fans are invested in loving Jay Johnson, so they’ll make him welcome. And Jay Johnson is invested in loving LSU, too – he’s getting a great job and following in the footsteps of two super-successful coaches in Skip Bertman and Paul Mainieri who were here a very, very long time. He’s got a great opportunity here with lots of folks who want to help.

And some of the most successful coaches LSU has ever had came here with zero Louisiana ties. Will Wade, for example, and Nick Saban. Bertman wasn’t a Louisiana guy when he came here. Nor was Bill Arnsparger, or even Les Miles. Most of the strangers, with a couple of exceptions which had to do with on-field performance more than anything else, have been quite happy here.

Still, when he’s gotten the ducks in order on that roster and coaching staff, he’s going to want to get out and about and meet the folks. He’s going to want to learn how to peel crawfish and pronounced etouffee, he’ll want to know how to avoid traffic on the I-10 bridge and which hole-in-the-wall establishment to hide out in during his down time. That’ll come, but as the insiders will tell you – how he does that will play a small role in just how much of a legend Jay Johnson can be at LSU.

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