Super fan Johnson meets his LSU idol
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Jay Johnson has always been obsessed with LSU baseball or if he’s been creepy-stalking the Tigers all these years.
Hard-core LSU fans will understand and relate to the notion that he remembers exactly where he was for Warren Morris’ walk-off home run to win the 1996 national championship.
“I was a very average junior college second baseman” glued to the TV, he said. “I remember thinking, ‘Man, I wish I was Warren Morris.’ ”
But it goes well beyond that for the California native coming to the bayou via Nevada and Arizona.
A few years later, as a 23-year-old who was coaching Connie Mack baseball with “no idea what I was doing,” he wondered “who’s the best in the country at what I want to do?”
Skip Bertman, of course, who was in the process of winning five national championships in 10 years with the Tigers, came to mind.
“So I bought his videotape — he made money off of me a long time ago.”
It was called “How to Win the Big One.”
Pretty soon, “The hold-the-rope story (a Bertman motivational staple) was being told in a small town in California. I can’t tell you how influential that was to my development as a coach. I believe that was the start of my journey here.”
But he wasn’t done eavesdropping on LSU.
“I remember exactly the walk-off win against Stanford to win the 2000 national championship,” he said. He’d have been 23 at the time.
“Being down in the ninth (having rallied with three in the eighth to tie it),” he said. “Your guys continuing to believe, continuing to push. Everything you want as a coach — your players rising to the occasion at the most important time of the game … again, a reflection of leadership.”
Internet advances allowed him to listen in to the news conference when Paul Mainieri was hired by Bertman in 2006.
He was 29 at the time, an assistant at San Diego, and just curious to see who his idol, Bertman, would choose.
But watching Mainieri made him think “That’s exactly how I want to do this, very clear to me coach (Bertman) made the right choice.”
He once went to hear Mainieri make a presentation at a coaching convention, even though the subject matter didn’t apply to balmy San Diego — “How to win in cold weather,” with experience from Mainieri’s Notre Dame days.
Johnson said Mainieri’s cold-weather plan was brilliantly simple — “He said, ‘First you put on a jacket.’ And he put on a jacket.”
Fast forward 15 years to Mainieri’s teary-eyed retirement announcement in late May.
Johnson was watching the SEC Network’s live coverage again, not with any thought at the time of replacing Mainieri, just to “hear him talk about his journey, his lifelong passion, where he was at, how he got to that point.”
“The class displayed in that (news conference) was something I want to emulate on a daily basis … such a great example of a national championship coach that did everything exactly as it needed to be done.”
Though they hadn’t met at the time, Johnson got Mainieri’s phone number and shot him a text: “Thank you being such a great example. This is exactly how I want to do this.”
Mainieri texted him back the next day.
So a week later Johnson — perhaps his interest in the job was piqued by then, maybe not — but his Arizona team had already won its own regional so he was able to tune in as LSU came out of the losers bracket to beat host Oregon in back to back games to advance out of the Eugene Regional.
“How (Mainieri) manipulated the pitching, got the most best of what (he) had. Guys really rose to the occasion for you that night. Really inspired me … a reflection of your leadership.”
Johnson finally got to meet his idol Bertman after arriving in Baton Rouge over the weekend. Bertman and Mainieri gave him a tour of the facilities. He now has both of their cell numbers, along with their support for a smooth transition.
Mainieri always said he coached at LSU just trying to make Bertman proud.
Johnson apparently will add Mainieri to his list, trying to bring back those days he first noticed LSU when “You literally couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing purple jerseys running around Omaha.”
LSU has hardly fallen off the map, but the Tigers haven’t been in Omaha since 2017 and haven’t won it all since 2009.
That’s too long on both counts to satisfy the fan base he’s inheriting.
But it sounds like he knows what he’s getting into.
Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at