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Arizona baseball: Wildcats’ run goes back to San Diego head coach Rich Hill

Jay Johnson’s relationship with his former boss runs deeper than most relationships out there

Rich Hill
Jason Bartel

Behind every great coach is a person that they originally learned it from. For Arizona’s Jay Johnson, it is University of San Diego Toreros head coach Rich Hill.

Hill gave Johnson his first-ever D-1 job, hiring him as an assistant prior to the 2006 season. Johnson then spent the next eight seasons under Hill, learning the ins and outs of being a head coach at the highest of levels in college baseball after one year as the head man at NAIA Point Loma Nazarene.

Even though it’s been three years since Johnson coached under Hill, their bond still runs deep, talking a couple of times a week throughout the season and constantly texting according to USD's head coach.

"I had 359 text messages, but I made one phone call," Johnson said of the state of his phone after advancing to the College World Series. "And (Hill) was the one phone call that I made. We had a good conversation. He left me an awesome text, and I just wanted to say thank you."

"I was ecstatic," Hill said of his emotions when Cesar Salazar hit the game-winning hit over MSU. "I was screaming in my hotel room ‘They did it, they did it’. I was pretty emotionally overwhelmed."

"I could hear it in his voice almost like disbelief," Hill added about his conversation with Johnson after the game. "That’s the holy grail you know. That’s the pinnacle of our profession, and I could just hear in his voice how proud he was of his team and his players, and it really came through."

Johnson attributes all of the success he has had in the past three seasons, including this postseason run with the Wildcats, to his former boss.

"There’s nobody outside of my dad that’s had a bigger impact on me," he stated. "And the reason Arizona baseball was able to do this this year, the reason Nevada did what it did last year, I owe him a lot for that."

"Jay is like my son, best friend, nephew, all in one," Hill added. "That’s how close we are and how special he is. I was just so happy for him. It’s a bond that you can't really describe."

Upon returning to Tucson, Johnson said he couldn’t have expected this to happen in year one. But his mentor had more belief in him.

"I know how special the guy is, and what a great leader he is, and how much of an inspiration he is to young people," Hill explained. "He’s one of those guys where anything is possible. Our conversations throughout the year revolved around how much he liked being around his players and his coaches, and maybe he could do something special."

Hill had several former assistants make the NCAA Tournament this season. St. Mary’s head coach Eric Valenzuela and Washington head coach Lindsay Meggs joined Johnson there, while former USD assistant Brian Green led New Mexico State to a regular season WAC Championship.

"That’s the reward," Hill said of a year that San Diego finished with a disappointing record of 27-29. "But to see those two guys in particular, Jay and Eric, it’s just an overwhelming sense of pride. I don’t know that you could really ask for anything more."

So will Hill go to Omaha and experience this overwhelming sense of pride in person over the course of the next week?

"I’ve thought about it," Hill answered. "There’s so much going on, I might. I don’t want to take anything away from Jay. Like I said, it would be a proud moment for me walking in. If I do, I’ll walk in the stands, get a seat in the upper deck, just kinda watch Jay jog out to third base and have that proud moment like I do when I have a player that first makes the big leagues. I’d just by my own ticket, have a personal moment for me."

"I might do that but probably not," he continued. "There’s too much work to be done here (laughing). Right now I'm staring at the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, checking the surf and trying to pick a set. I've got a few hours before I go check out a game. Probably not the same thing that the head coach at Arizona’s doing. It’s just all about recruiting right now. We had a bit of a down year so it’s kind of a bit of a full-court press."

But in typical Coach Hill fashion, his concerns about his program are outweighed by what is coming for his former assistant and great friend this week in Omaha.

"You got a good one there boy."