Jay Johnson‘s reward for taking the University of Arizona baseball team to the College World Series was a move to Louisiana, where he will take over the LSU program and enjoy a fatter paycheck.
His successor, Chip Hale, has also been rewarded for his contributions and devotion to the Wildcat program. The 56-year-old former UofA star athlete helped the 1986 Wildcats to a national championship and has remained close to the university in the years since his playing days.
The announcement came yesterday from the UofA administration that Hale had been selected to take over the reins of the baseball program from Johnson, who spent six seasons in charge. He took the Cats to two CWS appearances and compiled a 208-114 record in Tucson.
Johnson’s stock really rose this season after notching 41 wins and taking the 2021 squad to the school’s first outright conference championship in 29 years, while leading the Pac-12 in runs, hits, RBIs, batting average, and extra-base hits — and third in home runs.
The folks at LSU were obviously taking notes.
In 2015, when Johnson was handed the keys to a storied program that had been to the CWS 16 times and won four national titles, he had been a college head coach for just three years. But he had enjoyed impressive success at Nevada, where he brought that school its first-ever conference title, earning Johnson Mountain West Coach of the Year honors. He was a rapidly rising star in the coaching ranks.
The UofA athletic director at the time, Greg Byrne, made the decision to go with a hire that brought little head-coaching experience to the party. Byrne’ successor, Dave Heeke, went even farther out on that limb by picking someone with no experience as a college coach.
It took Heeke just 11 days to whittle down a long list of candidates to announce Hale as baseball’s eighth head coach since 1922.
This past season, Hale was the third-base coach for the Detroit Tigers. And, while he has no college experience, he has extensive minor-league experience as a manager. He also managed the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2015 and 2016.
In some respects, he’s a hometown hero of sorts. During his college career at UofA, he became the program’s all-time leader in games played, hits, and total bases.
Perhaps the biggest question mark about this hire is in the area of recruiting, the lifeblood of any college program. Johnson brought a proven ability to recruit when he took the Arizona job. During eight years as an associate head coach at San Diego University, he helped bring in nationally-ranked recruiting classes, including a 2008 class that was ranked No. 1 in the nation.
Hale will more than likely have to rely heavily on his assistant coaches for help in that arena. So, experienced recruiters will be a high priority as he assembles his staff.
Heeke surely took that into consideration as he stepped out onto that limb to make this hire. But hiring a school legend was apparently enough of a ‘get’ to offset the risk.