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After reading the headline above you must have immediately asked: What about Lute Olson?
Yes, the Hall of Fame coach is by far the best hire Arizona has made in the program’s history. Certainly, Olson is the best over a career and Wildcat fans can thank Cedric Dempsey — the most accomplished athletic director in Arizona history — for that hire. Olson had Arizona in the NCAA tournament in only his second season after taking over a 4-24 program before his hire. He is untouchable as the best hire.
But what about in terms of immediate impact? In a coach’s first year? A College World Series appearance in a coach’s first season?
When Jay Johnson took over last season, Arizona was in a three-year stretch without a postseason appearance. That took a toll on previous coach Andy Lopez, who retired after 14 seasons in Tucson with a national title in 2012.
Arizona’s finish in the Pac-12 over the previous three seasons: Tied for sixth (2013), 10th (2014) and eighth (2015). The Wildcats’ combined conference record in that stretch: 36-54.
The Wildcats were picked to finish ninth in the conference’s preseason poll. They finished tied for third with a 16-14 record.
Jim Young’s first season in 1973 as Arizona’s football coach — 8-3 overall and tied for first in the WAC — is memorable. The Wildcats were 4-7 and fourth in the WAC the previous season under Bob Weber. Young’s first-year success rivals that of Johnson in terms of immediate impact.
Legendary baseball coaches Frank Sancet (28-6 in 1950) and Jerry Kindall (37-16 in 1973) also had successful first seasons. But nothing like what Johnson is experiencing. Sancet’s initial team finished second in the regionals. Kindall’s first team did not qualify for the postseason.
Baseball is not like football and basketball in which quick fixes can take shape depending on the talent left from the previous coach. So many variables are involved with eight specialized positions on the field and pitchers whose capabilities are not discovered until the season takes shape.
Arizona ace Nathan Bannister finished with a team-high seven wins with a 3.98 ERA last season. Nobody expected he would go 11-2 with a 2.63 ERA this year, earning second-team All-American status in the process.
Top returning batter Bobby Dalbec’s production at he plate actually decreased from last season, yet Johnson and his staff have managed to coach others to bolster the lineup around Dalbec.
Dalbec batted .304 with 10 home runs and 23 RBIs last season. He is batting .266 with six home runs this year. Symbolic of Arizona’s more balanced lineup under Johnson: Dalbec has 36 RBIs.
Making Arizona’s College World Series more astounding: Johnson had only two years of experience as a head coach at Nevada before Greg Byrne hired him last June. Before that he was the associate head coach at San Diego from 2006 to 2013.
“I told my wife there’s finally an athletic director that gets it,” San Diego head coach Rich Hill told NCAA.com 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.”
Johnson’s name was one of the least mentioned during Byrne’s coaching search last spring. Those were often listed as candidates included Pepperdine’s Steve Rodriguez, New Mexico’s Ray Birmingham, Oregon assistant Mark Wasikowski and Cal Santa Barbara’s Andrew Checketts.
Checketts has also coached the Gauchos into the College World Series. Normally, that would make Arizona fans up in arms about why he was not hired. Nobody in Tucson cares at all now.
Here are some of the most notable hires in terms of first year production by football, basketball and baseball coaches since 1950 (Note: Mike Candrea finished 27-13-1 in his first season (1986) as the softball coach. The following season, Arizona was 42-18 and qualified for its first of 29 straight NCAA postseason appearances).
— 1952, Warren Woodson, 6-4 overall, 3-2 Border Conference
— 1973, Jim Young, 8-3, 6-1 WAC, tied for first
— 2012, Rich Rodriguez, 8-5, 4-5 Pac-12, New Mexico Bowl appearance
— 1972-73, Fred Snowden, 16-10 overall, 9-5 WAC, tied for second
— 1950, Frank Sancet, 28-6 overall, second in regionals
— 1973, Jerry Kindall, 37-16, second WAC South
— 2016, Jay Johnson, 43-21, College World Series appearance
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Jay Johnson Coaching History
• Arizona Head Coach (2016): 43-21 record
• Nevada Head Coach (2014-15): 72-42
• San Diego Associate Head Coach (2006-13)
• Point Loma Nazarene Head Coach (2005): 37-16
• Point Loma Nazarene Assistant Coach (2002-04)
ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.