Soccer coach Tony Amato left for Florida in late May and softball coach Mike Candrea retired on June 7, so really it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise when baseball coach Jay Johnson bolted for LSU in late June.
It had been weeks since the Arizona athletic department had to start a coaching search, so it was overdue.
Yet, Johnson leaving was a bit of a shock. LSU is a great job—one of the best in the country, actually—but it’s not as if it’s a big step up from Arizona. The Tigers have six College World Series championships to the Wildcats’ four, though between the two Arizona’s 2012 title is the most recent.
Other than that, LSU boasts larger crowd sizes, amazing facilities and more money, which can be kind of appealing if you’re into those kinds of things. Johnson apparently is, so now it’s on Arizona to find his replacement.
Going through those lists, as well as some others, and one thing becomes clear: Arizona should have no trouble finding an excellent coach.
This isn’t football, where the coach will take over one of the worst programs in the country or men’s basketball, where the coach will have to deal with the ramifications from a Notice of Allegations.
No, this is one of the top programs not only out West but in the country, one with a ton of talent already on the roster and plenty of support from the school. The money provided by Johnson’s buyout should make salary concerns moot, thereby creating a near-ideal situation.
So while it hurts to see Johnson, who guided the Cats to Omaha twice, produced nearly 30 MLB draft picks and more than 50 All-Americans during his time in Tucson leave, his bouncing to the bayou should be but a hiccup for Arizona Baseball.
That is, unless Arizona punches below its weight class.
There might be some who look at this coaching vacancy as a chance to bring a Wildcat home. Arizona went “outside the family” for both football and men’s basketball when there were candidates who were popular with the alumni for both jobs.
That did not go over well at first, though both Jedd Fisch and Tommy Lloyd have done well to change opinions during the brief time each has been in town.
With all due respect to Chip Hale, Shelley Duncan and any other former Cat who has been connected to the job, though, they would be terrible choices.
OK maybe they wouldn’t be terrible, but they would be reaches for a program that need not do such a thing.
This is not a situation where Arizona needs to find whoever it can to take the gig or snag someone who they think can do well, but has not yet proven an ability to actually do so.
Now, you may have read that and thought about softball, where Caitlin Lowe, a first-time coach, is taking over an elite program. The difference there is while she indeed will be a first-time head coach, she has been with Arizona Softball since 2012 and joined the coaching staff full time in 2015. She has recent experience not only in the sport she will be coaching, but with the exact team she will be leading.
Back to baseball.
Some of the names in the rumor mill, like Andrew Checketts of UCSB, Ben Orloff of UC Irvine and Washington State’s Brian Green make a lot more sense, as does any other coach who has displayed an ability to win as a college baseball head coach.
Dave Heeke, who was a baseball player at Albion College and by all accounts cares a great deal about the sport, has to know this. He has to know that Arizona is not the place for someone to prove they have what it takes, nor is it a job that can go to someone just because they really, really, really want it.
This job demands better than that. Hell, it deserves better than that.
Arizona Baseball is one of the best jobs in the country, and this hire should be made with that in mind.