The weekly schedule for fall always looked the same during Jay Johnson’s childhood.
He would break up feature films with his father, the Oroville High School offensive coordinator, every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday night. On Fridays he would watch his dad’s team, and the next day he would play his own Pop Warner game.
Johnson recovered on Sunday. Then the routine started all over again, repeating itself every week until the end of the season.
“I can’t understand growing up without football,” Johnson said.
The sport became Johnson’s favorite. He also played baseball and basketball, but soccer suited his personality. It allowed him to sharpen the part of his mind programmed for strategy, and he could best utilize his competitiveness with a helmet.
Johnson never liked to rest. Football wouldn’t let him.
Football also gave Johnson extra time with his father, a longtime high school coach. Jerry Johnson coached track, football, and baseball in Oroville, a small town in Northern California, for almost four decades. The responsibilities of coaches at all levels can pull them away from their families, so Jerry was happy to get his eldest son involved.
All those nights in the movies formed the basis of Johnson’s relationship with his father and shaped him into a coach himself. Johnson learned to prepare, analyze and anticipate. The sport boosted his work ethic. He loved it, and even though Johnson became the baseball coach who will attempt to guide LSU through the Hattiesburg area this weekend, football remains on his mind.
“Honestly, I just wanted to be like him,” Johnson said of his father. “If you’re asking me if I have my brothers — don’t get me wrong, I love being a baseball coach — but I wish I was a senior Division I football coach.”
Johnson’s love of the sport came from his father, who played a year at junior college. Johnson rooted himself in Nebraska because Jerry was born there. His earliest memories are of carrying the balls to his father’s games. Johnson looked up to Oroville running backs Jeff Danner and Eddie Stewart — he can still remember their names — and hoped to play the same position on his father’s offense. He dreamed of winning the Heisman Trophy.
Jerry never pushed his boys in any particular direction, but Johnson is committed to the sport. He wanted to be a coach because that’s what his father did. He first said he wanted to be a college baseball coach when he was 5 years old.
“Coaching is all I’ve known in my entire life,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t know what else to do. I just wanted to be like my dad and I was lucky because he was very good at what he did.”
Hoping to raise his son, Johnson’s father took him to coaching clinics. They went to San Francisco and Las Vegas. You once heard Lou Holtz speak. Johnson scribbled them all in his notepad, trying to absorb information. He understood the game so well that Jerry asked him to scout certain players while studying film.
“I wanted him to hear from these people what it takes and what you have to do to get what you want at a very high level,” Jerry said. “It was just as important for him as it was for me and the other coaches.”
By the time Johnson reached high school, his understanding of the game gave him an advantage. He also believed that as the coach’s son he had to work harder than anyone. His father never gave him a place.
Johnson ran stadium stairs until he vomited during summer training. He tried to score every time he touched the ball. As hard as he played, Oroville head coach Jim McNulty once said he wouldn’t trade Johnson for two 200-pound running backs running a 4.5 40-yard dash.
Before Johnson’s junior year, Jerry installed the fly offense to highlight his elusive 5-foot-7, 165-pound son and let him walk in space. The deception system was based on deception. When Oroville switched to Wing-T a year later, Johnson excelled at running back.
“As small as he is, he would disappear in there and come out somewhere and be wide open,” Jerry said. “All of a sudden he’s on the third level and he’s trying to get a touchdown and you don’t even know where he’s coming from.”
Statistics are limited, but Johnson rushed for at least 1,000 yards and averaged more than 9 yards per carry in his senior year. He received awards from the All-Eastern Athletic League.
But Johnson didn’t have the size to play big college football, and he understood he couldn’t take it to the next level.
When Johnson’s last football game ended, he called it “the saddest moment of my life” because he knew he would never play again. The sport had suited his personality more than any other. He loved the meticulous pre-game planning, the emotionally charged atmosphere of Friday nights and the competition. Football sharpened his aggressiveness, and unlike baseball, he could chew on a score without having to play the next day.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a passion or love for anything like I’ve had with football,” Johnson said.
Instead, baseball beckoned. Johnson had grown up with a full batting cage, lights, and a regular-size Little League mound his father built in the backyard. They filmed the exercises and disassembled the band in the living room.
Despite being an All-League baseball player in Oroville, Johnson didn’t think he understood the game that well when he graduated. He started at Shasta Community College to learn more before moving to Point Loma Nazarene where he played as second base.
“He’s pretty modest about his baseball skills,” Jerry said, “but he was damn good.”
As Johnson’s coaching career took off, he needed to evolve. So much of him was wired for soccer. Baseball required more patience. He wanted perfection and the sport was about failure. Johnson tried to take the emotions that made him an effective soccer player and apply them in different ways. More losses would happen.
“As a young coach,” Johnson said, “that was one of the biggest challenges for me.”
Though he sometimes struggles to pull through losses even now, Johnson understands better that one game of baseball isn’t the end of the world. He still hates losing. When he does that, he tries to analyze the reasons and motivate his team for the next game, drawing on the mindset he developed as a footballer.
“I was really trying to program my mind and our team,” Johnson said. “If we lose a game we have to show up on the field the next day and the other team is confused with our energy levels. Like, ‘Wait a minute, didn’t we hit those guys last night? Why aren’t they downstairs?’ ”
In another way, of course, Johnson has included football in his programs. He used the same attention to detail when planning drills. He viewed the training like installing an offensive. He prepared for games by dismantling films, as he once did with his father, and studied other coaches, most notably Nick Saban.
“He gives us this football mentality,” said LSU sophomore outfielder Dylan Crews.
An avid college football fan, Johnson has sent relevant clips to his teams over the years. In 2019, he watched a TV feature about LSU wide receivers catching 10,000 balls the summer before their national championship run.
Johnson repeated the exercise in Arizona. Each player had to do something specific 10,000 times during fall training, e.g. B. Catching drag bunts or ground balls. He believed that athletes benefited from repetition regardless of the sport.
Already, Johnson often thinks in football terms. He compares free bases to turnovers and lead-off hitters to kick returns. When LSU used a double squeeze against Vanderbilt, he called it a trick play and mixed the sport he loved as a kid with the one he made his career.
“To me, coaching means turning your players into good learners,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of parallels that you can take from football and apply to baseball.”
Sport is never far from him. Johnson made some of his fondest memories scoring touchdowns at Oroville. He cherished those moments of returning to the sidelines and seeing his father, and his appreciation for how much he had learned deepened over time.
He says none of this would have happened without Jerry, who has watched every LSU game this season and traveled to Hattiesburg for the regional league.
When told how much credit his son gave him for his success, Jerry brushed off the compliment and cowed at the praise.
“Well,” Jerry said, pausing, “he gives me way too much credit for what he’s doing and where he’s at.”