Two years ago, Skip Johnson never would have thought he would be sitting where he was on Tuesday.
To his right, Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione had just given a lengthy affirmation of why Johnson was the right coach at the right time for the Sooners’ baseball program. To Johnson’s left, Owen Field, which is the economic catalyst for the Sooners’ mammoth athletic department budget, glistened.
Johnson saw himself becoming a head coach, but at Oklahoma?
“Um, No,” Johnson said, drawing chuckles from the crowd of athletic department personnel at the introductory press conference to announce the five-year, $1.975 million deal for OU’s baseball coach.
Johnson, who came from the Sooners’ bullpen to replace Pete Hughes, spent a decade tutoring Texas’ pitching staff before becoming the Sooners’ pitching coach for the 2017 season.
Many believed Johnson — a Texan in every sense of the word — would be Augie Garrido’s replacement when the legendary baseball coach stepped aside at Texas.
Garrido stepped down/was forced out following the 2016 season. Johnson did not get the nod from Texas athletic director Mike Perrin.
That was the Sooners’ gain. Hughes quickly hired Johnson to become his pitching coach following last season. Castiglione raced to make Johnson the 10th head coach in the program’s history on Monday.
“He has the ability to teach and recruit and to inspire people around him,” Castiglione said. “If you can’t do any of those three, you’re going to struggle. I don’t care how much strategy you want to talk about.”
Johnson’s baseball roots extend well beyond college baseball. He’s Los Angeles Dodgers pitching ace Clayton Kershaw’s personal pitching coach. Baltimore Orioles slugger Chris Davis, who Johnson coached at Navarro (Texas) College, still comes to him for advice.
Castiglione quizzed those who run the summer tournaments that have become meccas for college coaches and pro scouts mining for talent. He talked to those he knew in college baseball and the professional ranks.
All spoke highly of Johnson.
“They couldn’t name a coach during recruiting times that was more visible than Skip,” Castiglione said. “He went out of his way to represent whomever it was that he was working in a classy way and to make sure players knew he was there watching and evaluating talent.”
But the circumstances that put Johnson in this position are odd. Usually when a head coach is fired his successor usually isn’t a member of his coaching staff. The house gets swept out.
Castiglione has done it twice. The last came when Sunny Golloway replaced Larry Cochell (with a one afternoon blip with Gene Stephenson taking the job) after the 2005 season.
But Johnson is a different case. He’s spent the overwhelming brunt of his coaching career in Texas. It's always been a key to recruiting for the Sooners.
Castiglione acknowledged that aspect, but he chose Johnson because of the standing of those in the game.
“When I asked, those people would say that he’s a guy you don’t want to compete against,” Castiglione said.
The Sooners baseball program needs a mentality upgrade more than a tactical shift. Hughes put together four years of .500 baseball. This past season was his best, but the end of the season showed the will to compete waned.
That’s what Johnson has to change for the Sooners to be successful. He didn’t shy away from that Tuesday. Johnson is dug in at OU.
“I'm a guy that stays long-term,” he said. “I was at Navarro 16 years and I was at the University of Texas for 10 years. So, I'm not going to come in here and leave. It's who I am.”