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Arizona baseball: Jay Johnson is the template of a coach to lead Wildcats back to NCAA Tournament

Will the Wildcats find themselves in the postseason again after a three-year hiatus?

Jason Bartel

With the NCAA Tournament going on that most Arizona Wildcats fans care about, the Arizona baseball team begins Pac-12 play this weekend as they travel to Seattle to take on the Washington Huskies.

For most, this will go under the radar. But for Arizona, this is when we see if the coaching change pays off immediately.

It's been since the 2012 National Championship that the Wildcats have even tasted postseason play. Only one player remains from that team, Tyler Crawford, and he hasn't been able to pitch yet this year because of a setback in his Tommy John Surgery recovery.

But even with all of the inexperience up and down the Arizona roster, the right man is in charge of this project.

"I think Jay (Johnson) is the best young coach in American," San Diego head coach Rich Hill told me in February at the Tony Gwynn Classic. Hill hired Johnson to work at USD starting in 2006. "Jay, in my opinion, is the template of what a college baseball coach should be. Make that be your title."

I did Coach Hill.

Just meeting him, within five minutes, it was like, that's the guy man. Let's do it."-Eric Valenzuela

"The University of Arizona absolutely made the best hire they possibly could," coach Hill continued. "You can look at the accolades and everything else, but I know the real Jay. This guy is phenomenal at relationship building. At taking boys into manhood. So you start there."

"Then you talk about his baseball coaching and his drive to get to the College World Series and win a National Championship. It is unmatched."

When Hill hired Johnson at USD, Arizona's current head coach had been the head man at local NAIA school Point Loma Nazarene for just one year. A mutual friend would turn the Toreros' head coach on to Johnson.

"Our assistant position came open, and our mutual friend said 'Hey, this is the guy you gotta hire. I know he's a young guy and everything else and barely has any experience at all, but trust me," Hill explained. "And that obviously paid off a hundred times over."

One guy who was on the hiring committee back then was now-Saint Mary's head coach Eric Valenzuela, who just brought his Gaels team to Tucson for the Wildcat Invitational. Valenzuela and Johnson are best friends, and they have both agreed that this year's single game will be the last time they play each other in the regular season.

"When we hired him, I was there for six years, and two years before he got there, and when we had a coaching position open, there was a couple guys that we were looking at," Valenzuela reminisced about the hiring process to bring Johnson in at USD. "There was a couple guys from bigger places for that hitting job, and (Hill) said 'Hey, there's a guy from Point Loma right down the street, Jay Johnson, that I want to bring in' and my immediate reaction was 'God man, Point Loma. No Division-1 experience. Man."

"I just remember at the time, Point Loma, yeah, well they have a pretty good program but they're NAIA. But then you give a guy like that an opportunity, like baseball's baseball, you know what I mean, from Little League to the big leagues. If you get a guy with that knowledge and that personality that can relate to these 19- to 22-year-old kids, you've got a good thing."

"And just meeting him, within five minutes, it was like, that's the guy man. Let's do it."

"The next day, Eric and I were in a car driving up to L.A. and breaking down players," Johnson said of how quickly the relationship formed. "We just had a good synergy, and it was a good staff to be a part of."

Valenzuela wasn't the only one with a little hesitation at the start. There was some skepticism among the Torero players at the time as well.

"So, you got this small five-foot-six guy coming in from Point Loma, and our guys are going 'What've we got here?'," Valenzuela joked. "And within weeks, that thing was just turned around from an offensive side of things, and we grew as a program to what they are now."

But Johnson wasn't exactly the first choice there either, just like many had thought UCSB head coach Andrew Checketts was the guy at the top of Arizona's list when Andy Lopez retired in 2015.

"I think (Johnson) was probably the second or third choice there, I don't know if Hill told you that," Valenzuela explained. "And gosh, thank God. Like no really, thank God that it worked out that way."

"The fans of Tucson and Arizona should be lucky to have him here."-Valenzuela

Greg Byrne took a bit of a chance on Johnson as well, hiring him after spending just two years as Nevada's head coach. Bringing someone to a big school with such little Division-1 head coaching experience is a gamble, but this is the right gamble.

"I told my wife there's finally an athletic director that gets it," Rich Hill said of the day Johnson was hired by Arizona. "Here's a guy that's a young dude in college baseball, but obviously Greg Byrne is very wise beyond his years. That was my first thought. I think Greg Byrne really deserves a lot of credit for hiring Jay."

"I think Greg Byrne did exactly the right thing in hiring Jay," added Valenzuela. "This thing is gonna turn in a hurry. What Jay brings to the table is just relentless when it comes to the recruiting, the hitting portion of it, and just the organization of a program."

"I wasn't surprised at all," Valenzuela continued on about his thoughts on the day Johnson was hired. "What he did in a short amount of time at Nevada was unbelievable. I think with his staff, Dave Lawn and Sergio Brown, you've got three of the best coaches in the country, and they just kill the Southwest when it comes to recruiting, and it's already happening in the recruiting world. All the big guys are now coming this way."

"He's a special guy man, it's baseball. There's nothing else, no kids, you know? He's just a total grinder of baseball guy, and the fans of Tucson and Arizona should be lucky to have him here."

Arizona is currently riding a seven-game winning streak as Pac-12 play begins, have won ten of their last eleven, and hold an overall record of 12-4. All signs point to this being the right hire. It's time to show that in conference play now.