Greg Byrne was delighted with the interest he received from people applying to be the new head coach for the University of Arizona baseball program, vacant since Andy Lopez retired on May 25.
“We were absolutely blown away by the interest and number of qualified candidates that inquired,” admitted the UofA Director of Athletics at Monday’s press conference to introduce Lopez’s replacement.
And then he went out and hired Jay Johnson, who has a total of three years as a college head coach, two of those with a Division I program. And handed him the reins to a storied program that has been to the College World Series 16 times and won four national championships, the last one under Lopez in 2012, and is the nation’s ninth-winningest college baseball program.
In other words, it was an interesting hire.
Byrne is hitching his wagon to a rising young coach that is enjoying meteoric success, rather than taking the safer route of hiring someone with a thicker resume and proven track record. The Arizona job was an attractive one that undoubtedly drew interest from some of those old hands at the game.
The 38-year-old California native spent just two years as the head coach of the Nevada Wolfpack program before taking the job in Tucson, but produced some impressive results. He was 72-42 overall in those two seasons, but his 41-15 record this year resulted in the school’s first Mountain West Conference title and Johnson’s recognition as the Mountain West Coach of the Year.
The 41 wins are the second-most in program history, and the eight runs a game the Wolfpack were averaging last season put them among the top five programs in the country in that category.
Prior to the Nevada job, he was the associate head coach at University of San Diego for eight years, helping that program capture four West Coast Conference titles. His only other head-coaching job was for his alma mater, Point Loma Nazarene University, a small Christian college in San Diego, during the 2005 season.
Nevada apparently knew they had a coach who was going to begin attracting other offers. Johnson had completed just two years on a three-year contract, but school officials were reportedly preparing an extension when Arizona came calling, offering him roughly three times what he was making with the Wolfpack.
But the money appears to be just one part of the lure to the desert. He says he’s looking forward to the challenge of taking the Cats back to the College World Series after three seasons of falling short of that goal, an annual expectation for a program with Arizona’s pedigree.
And he has no hesitation about stepping into big shoes. At Nevada, he replaced a coaching legend when Gary Powers retired after 31 years directing the program and accumulating 937 victories. At Arizona, he replaces a man who has been a college coach for more than 30 years, 14 at Arizona, and won a national championship for the Wildcats.
Johnson, the son of a high school coach, is just the seventh head coach at Arizona since 1922.
Byrne is banking heavily on Johnson’s proven ability to recruit. During his time at San Diego, he helped bring in nationally-ranked recruiting classes. In 2008, that class was ranked No. 1 in the nation by Baseball America, and two years later the Toreros snagged a class ranked second among D-I schools.
At Nevada, that same strong recruiting enabled him to turn around a struggling program in short order.
Calling recruiting the “lifeblood” of a program when addressing those gathered at Hi Corbett Field for Monday’s presser, Johnson said, “I’m passionate about finding the right players and how they fit into the team dynamic, and their potential to develop.
“I’ve always been energized by it.”
And that’s just what Byrne needs to hear from his new coach after stepping out on a limb to make this hire.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)