RENO — The first time Jay Johnson tried to sell himself to the Nevada Wolf Pack, well, Nevada wasn’t buying.
“I came here on a recruiting trip out of high school,” said Johnson, who was an all-conference football and baseball player at Oroville (Calif.) High. “No, they didn’t offer me a scholarship. But what I remember was how the stadium was packed that day and there was a lot of energy in the crowd.”
Johnson presented himself to the Wolf Pack once again this past week. And this time the Wolf Pack made him an offer. Johnson, now 36-years-old and a veteran of 12 coaching seasons, was named the Wolf Pack baseball team’s head coach on Friday.
“I chose Nevada as much as they chose me,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who met the Northern Nevada media on Saturday, spent the past eight seasons as an assistant coach with the San Diego Toreros under head coach Rich Hill. The Toreros have gone to eight NCAA Regionals under Hill since 2002 (six in eight years since Johnson joined the program) and produced the No. 2 pick in this June’s amateur draft and this year’s Dick Howser Award winner in third baseman Kris Bryant.
Johnson, the Toreros hitting coach and associate head coach the past three seasons, says there is no reason why the Wolf Pack cannot return to the NCAA Regionals. The Wolf Pack has not been to the NCAA postseason since 2000 when Johnson was a senior second baseman at Point Loma Nazarene, a NAIA school.
“The number one reason why I wanted to come here is because I feel that what we did at San Diego is very similar to what we can do at Nevada,” Johnson said.
Johnson replaces Gary Powers, who resigned immediately after the Pack’s 25-32 season in 2013. Powers compiled a career record of 937-762 in 31 seasons at Nevada with four NCAA regional appearances. Powers, a Douglas High graduate, also had 17 seasons of 30 victories or more and 20 seasons with a record of over .500.
“I don’t know if you can replace someone like Coach Powers,” Johnson said. “To have the success that he had, to send as many players to professional baseball as he has and to win as many games as he did, is very impressive. I am humbled by the opportunity.”
Keith Hackett, the Wolf Pack’s Senior Associate Director of Athletics, headed the search committee to find the Pack’s next head baseball coach.
“We had over 80 applicants for this job,” Hackett said. “This is a great job and a lot of very impressive people applied for it. We feel Jay rose to the top of all of them.”
Hackett said the search committee narrowed the search to the top 25 applicants and then conducted Skype interviews with the top 14. The final five were brought to Nevada this past week for face-to-face interviews.
“Jay is an outstanding choice,” Hackett said. “His connections in southern California, his recruiting connections in Las Vegas (Bryant went to Bonanza High in Las Vegas), his experience and enthusiasm, are all very significant.”
Johnson said he immediately reached out to Powers.
“I had a great talk with Coach Powers (on Saturday),” Johnson said. “Coach Powers is spectacular to talk to. I already gained a lot of wisdom from him.”
“Coach Powers will be a great adviser to Jay,” Hackett said,
Johnson said he hopes to announce his coaching staff in the near future. He added that current Pack assistant coaches Buddy Gouldsmith, Pat Flury and Matt Fonteno are also candidates for positions on the staff. Flury has been the Pack’s pitching coach the past three seasons in a volunteer role. Johnson said his pitching coach will be a paid position.
“The first part of this process is to get a good coaching staff in place,” Johnson said, “a staff that our players can be excited about. ”
Johnson has been a head coach for one season (2005) at Point Loma Nazarene in San Diego. He guided the Sea Lions, who play in one of the most picturesque ballparks in the nation located right on the coast of Pacific Ocean, to a 37-16 record and a Golden State Athletic Conference Southern Division title.
“I will bring a lot of energy, enthusiasm and a lot of excitement to Nevada baseball,” said Johnson, who also played two seasons at Shasta Junior College, the same school Powers coached before coming to Nevada in 1983. “I love what I do.”
Johnson said he hopes to build the Pack program on pitching and defense.
“Our team will hustle and play with intensity and determination and when our fans are out at the ballpark watching us, I want them to point at us and say, ‘That’s what a baseball team should look like,’” he said. “We’re going to play the game the right way.”
Johnson, who has spent the last 14 years in the near-perfect baseball climate of San Diego as a player and coach, said he is well aware of the recruiting and environmental challenges in Northern Nevada.
“I’m not concerned about that,” Johnson said. “A lot of cold-weather schools have had success in college baseball. Indiana went to the College World Series this year. I’m not going to build a fence around what we can accomplish.”