Another college baseball season is in the books. Another Southeastern Conference powerhouse is taking home the big trophy. Unfortunately for Arkansas baseball fans, it is not the Razorbacks.
The LSU Tigers, the premier program of the modern college baseball era, secured their seventh title earlier this week. Those seven championships trail only the USC Trojans all-time (12), and those guys from the left coast have won just one in the last four-plus decades (1998) and have been largely irrelevant since their last Omaha appearance in 2001.
The top-end talent second-year coach Jay Johnson assembled, primarily from the transfer portal, put LSU as everyone’s favorite to start the season. And I mean everyone. The Bayou Bengals handled the pressure to win the national championship with contributions from everyone — from top of the first-round draft picks to homegrown stars to under-the-radar role players.
Wes Johnson Helps LSU Win the Title
Another reason the Tigers were picked highly in the preseason was Johnson’s offseason hiring of Minnesota Twins pitching coach and native Arkansan Wes Johnson. Johnson already led remarkably good pitching staffs at Dallas Baptist, Mississippi State and Arkansas before becoming the first college pitching coach hired directly to the big league level. His final year at Arkansas in 2018 culminated in a near national championship for the Razorbacks, led by a slew of eventual pros, including Blaine Knight, Isaiah Campbell, Matt Cronin, Jake Reindl, Kacey Murphy, Evan Lee and Barrett Loseke.
His respect in the coaching community, as far as pitching goes, is at the top of the list. Current Razorback pitching coach Matt Hobbs is also on that same shortlist and has turned down opportunities in pro ball, including with the New York Yankees. There are a handful of others, including Texas A&M’s Nate Yeskie, Drew Dickinson at Virginia and Corey Muscara at Wake Forest, to name a few.
But now Johnson, 51, is moving from just coaching pitchers to becoming the head honcho at the University of Georgia. He was announced as the replacement for the terminated 10-year coach of the Bulldogs, Scott Stricklin, in early June – right as the Tigers were starting their march toward Omaha, and Georgia had missed NCAA play yet again.
The timing and situation feel like the right move, as Georgia has announced major upgrades to their facility and has some talent on campus, with rising sophomore slugger Charlie Condon leading the way. With Wes Johnson’s name brand and reputation coupled with the quick fixes out of the portal, the Bulldogs could quickly elevate their pecking order in the SEC. Now that LSU’s season is over, things will get interesting in Athens rather quickly.
“I’m happy for Wes and his family,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said Tuesday. “I called him and also texted him after that came out and congratulated him. Just happy for him as a coach.
“He’s wanted to coach at the highest level (and) this league is definitely the highest level of Division I baseball. Do I think he’s ready? I mean, yeah. I think he’s ready. I think as a head coach, you’ve just got to make sure you get the right people around you and you feel comfortable with your staff. He knows what he’s doing, so he’ll be fine.”
There is a recent track record of pitching coaches doing well as head coaches at the college level. TCU’s Kirk Sarloos was a long-time pitching coach for the Horned Frogs and was elevated to the head job after Jim Schlossnagle moved down the road to Texas A&M in 2021.
As Arkansas baseball fans know, his team ended up a win short of the national championship series this season. Uber-successful Kevin O’Sullivan at Florida is also a pitching guy. Although a catcher as a player at LSU, Ole Miss’ Mike Bianco handles the pitchers for the Rebels. Auburn’s Butch Thompson was the pitching coach at Mississippi State before taking over the Tigers.
Wes Johnson’s Roots in Arkansas
Wes Johnson has some head coaching experience, as that is where I met him in the early 2000s. He was the head coach at tiny Abundant Life High School in Sherwood, Ark., for four seasons, leading the Owls to a 102-25 overall record and consecutive state titles 2006 and 2007.
He actually coached the AA team for the North Little Rock Colts in American Legion baseball while I was serving as pitching coach for the older team. Although he is decades and talent levels away from those days, I would still be willing to bet Wes is as organized, meticulous, demanding and skilled in improving pitchers and attacking hitters.
We also interacted routinely when he was the Razorbacks’ pitching coach and I was the volunteer pitching coach at Little Rock’s Catholic High. The Rockets had a few left-handed pitchers who caught his eye, and the Hogs eventually landed one in Dylan Thompson. Eventual arm trouble prevented Thompson from ever pitching for the Hogs, but Wes and I frequently communicated on pitchers we had or kids I had seen in high school baseball. He is just a great baseball mind, evidenced by his continual climbing of the ladder.
But now he has to make the ultimate decisions on recruiting, lineups, who to schedule, hiring assistants and all the other things head coaches do that assistants don’t. With the portal and the hotbed of talent in the Georgia, Alabama and Florida region he is now in, I don’t suspect it will take him long to assemble players capable of competing with the likes of the perennial, current powers in LSU, Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee and Vandy. Can he push all the right buttons that make the difference in that ultra-talented conference? Time will tell, and there will surely be some learning curve(s).
Potential Heir Apparent for Arkansas Baseball?
So that begs the question: Whenever the 62-year-old Dave Van Horn retires, will Wes Johnson have enough success at UGA to be the heir apparent? Tennessee’s Tony Vitello, whose final year in Fayetteville as an assistant overlapped with Johnson’s first year on campus, has already been appointed by some members of the fan base as the next Razorback head coach. Others don’t care for the way he or his Vols carry themselves and would rather not see him in Razorback red again.
Although his record against Arkansas (1-9) is poor up to this point, Vitello can flat coach and recruit. He’s proven that as a head coach. Johnson has no track record as we stand here today. Odds are in his favor to do well, but there have been scads of really good assistant coaches failing to win enough as a head coach and end up let go. Texas A&M’s Rob Childress comes to mind and he also comes out of the DVH coaching tree. The Aggies let Childress go after a lackluster stretch in College Station and he is now the pitching coach at Nebraska.
But the eventual successor may not be Vitello or Johnson, as there are no signs of DVH slowing down. And, rest assured, he’s highly motivated to win the Razorbacks a national championship. There is no telling where Van Horn, Vitello, or Johnson are by the time DVH steps away from leading the Arkansas baseball program. And at this point, who knows where college baseball will be with the MLB draft, NIL and the portal all changing the game with each passing season.
Time will tell who the next head hog will be but the fan base doesn’t need to get in a big hurry wishing for a successor. The current guy occupying the head coach title at the University of Arkansas is pretty dang good.
And also due for what LSU just got.
The Dave Van Horn Coaching Tree
With Wes Johnson taking over the Georgia baseball program, both of Dave Van Horn’s assistants on the 2017 team are now head coaches in the SEC.
Tony Vitello has been at Tennessee since 2018 and has resurrected the program, guiding the Volunteers to the College World Series twice and a No. 1 overall seed another year.
Despite the public perception that they’re fierce rivals, Van Horn said he actually talks to Vitello quite a bit and that he is happy for both him and Johnson.
“Those guys did a great job when they were here and they’ve gone off and done a great job where they’re at,” Van Horn said. “They were good before I hired them. To see them become head coaches in the Southeastern Conference, I’m excited for them, happy for them.
“That’s what they wanted to do when they came here. I told them if they’d come here and work hard, I’d help them do whatever they wanted to do. It’s good seeing them. Don’t like competing against them, but proud of them and happy for them.”
Those aren’t the only two branches to Van Horn’s coaching tree, though.
His former assistants include Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Matt Deggs, Louisiana Tech head coach Lane Burroughs and Little Rock head coach Chris Curry. A pair of his former players at Nebraska — Jay Sirianni and Andy Sawyers — are also head coaches at Sam Houston State and Southeast Missouri State, respectively.
“I’ve got guys working at different levels that will call me for advice or ‘how would you handle this?’” Van Horn said. “It’s always fun to try to keep up with them, checking scores or box scores at night just to see how their players are doing and how they’re doing.
“I think it’s like anybody else, you have guys that worked for you for a while or even played for you that are out coaching now. It’s kind of rewarding, so to speak. You’re proud of them because it’s not easy.”
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