Arkansas head baseball coach Dave Van Horn knew just who he wanted for his new pitching coach and as soon as that guy’s season ended he went about making him a Razorback.
Van Horn tabbed Arkansas native and former Dallas Baptist and Mississippi State pitching coach Wes Johnson as his new assistant on Wednesday and the two met the media on Thursday.
“I have known about Wes for five or six years,” Van Horn said. “ I have kind of followed his career. It started out I was really impressed with what was going on at Dallas Baptist a few years back. His name was getting there out and being out recruiting and talking to a lot of the coaches that were on the trail and talking to a lot of pitching coaches, I knew that I would need to hire a pitching coach down the road that Coach Jorn was going to retire shortly.
“His name kept coming up. I liked him as a pitching coach and I liked him as a person. It’s just ironic that he is from Arkansas. That was just a plus. I have been waiting for his team to get done a little bit and when they were done we made contact and went from there.”
Johnson guided Mississippi State’s pitchers as the Bulldogs completed a worst-to-first SEC season in 2016 in his only season with the Bulldogs.
He had the coached the previous four years at Dallas Baptist, graduated from Sylvan Hills and Arkansas Monticello and had coached at two high schools and three colleges in the state.
“It’s a chance to come home,” Johnson said. “ I’m from here. My wife and her family. I have to thank my wife. She is phenomenal. This game requires you to be away a lot and to give her a chance to get closer around family. And obviously you look and who wouldn’t want to come here, right?
“It’s the University of Arkansas, the facilities are phenomenal. You get to work for a guy that in my mind is going to be in the Hall of Fame of college coaches. So to me it was a no-brainer.”
He also is excited about working with Van Horn.
“Getting to work with Coach Van Horn, c'mon, his track record speaks for itself,” Johnson said. “The guy is the best guy in college baseball. The facilities, the support from the university, I've been around the league now for a year.
“There is no better place than here. And obviously the chance to come back home where I'm from. I know a lot of people in the state from recruiting and so forth. To me it just made sense.”
During his lone season at Mississippi State, the Bulldogs staff had a .251 team ERA and he had a first-round draft pick in Dakota Hudson, who was taken by the St. Louis Cardinals.
“My philosophy on pitching is real simple,” Johnson said. “I like power. I try to develop it. That’s what I want. I want power fast balls. I want power breaking balls. It’s pretty simple. We want guys bigger, faster, stronger on the mound. That’s what my track record shows and that’s what I have had success doing.”
Van Horn is down with the power pitching philosophy.
“Oh, yeah,” Van Horn said. “Ideally, when you are talking right-handers we want them all throwing in the 90s unless they do something different like maybe a submariner-slider type of guy.
“Lefties, if you get lefties throwing in the 90s that’s pretty good. Not many of those guys make it to college. So you have to develop that. If we get a lefty and they are throwing 85 or 87 and a couple of years after that maybe with strength and a philosophy of coaching they bump it up into the 90s, that’s a good thing.
“Bottom line we want to get good pitchers here and develop them. I feel like if you’ve got kids that are throwing hard that makes it harder on that hitter because they have got to make decisions a lot earlier, jumping at bad pitches, swinging at balls. I want kids that want to be developed into somebody that throws harder than they throw now and that’s why they want to come here.”
Van Horn is replacing retired pitching coach Dave Jorn, whose pitchers struggled last season.
He expects Johnson to bring some new energy to the team.
“I think so,” Van Horn said. “Whenever there’s a change whether it’s a head coach or an assistant there is always going to be some new energy. Maybe a new philosophy or just new personality. I think Wes is going to bring all that.
“It’s a good thing. Coach Jorn did an incredible job. It has been fun working with him two different times. I was really young when I started with him in the mid ‘80s then got to work with him 14 years.
“But it was time and now we have got Wes here. I think a lot of the recruits that we have already got signed that will be in here in August, they already know him because he was recruiting them or they knew of him and a lot of the guys that are in our program right now are excited about getting Wes Johnson here.
“They have heard many good things whether it’s in summer ball or playing out in collegiate leagues. Guys that he’s coached - he’s got a good reputation. And obviously that’s one reason we got him because there are a lot of kids that want to pitch for him.”
Van Horn talked to a couple of other coaches, but was laser focused on Johnson.
“I talked to a couple of guys on the phone,” Van Horn said. “Obviously we didn’t bring them in. We weren’t to that stage yet. I kind of knew who I wanted No. 1 and you know me, I am pretty much to the point. I don’t want to waste a lot of peoples’ time and it’s such a busy time of the year I don’t want to mislead people and take coaches and bring them here when they need to be recruiting for the program they are working for.
“So I did take some calls and talked to some guys a little bit and basically just said, ‘I do have a couple of guys in mind and then we will go from there.’ Once Wes’ club was finished I made contact with (Mississippi State head coach) John Cohen through texting and said, ‘I want to speak to Wes’ and then I made the phone call.”
Mississippi State was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night.
“I think I waited - I think they lost Saturday night and I waited until Monday afternoon or something like that.”
While Johnson was interested in the Arkansas job after Jorn retired, he wasn’t sure he would get a chance.
“I just want to go about my business every day,” Van Horn said. “I just say ‘Where you are at, you get there every day and work as hard as you can and if you are doing things the right way, people are going to notice. I had some people from the state obviously that I know started texting me but I didn’t know.”
Johnson will get right to work.
“Well, we're right in the middle of recruiting,” Johnson said. “It's going to be busy obviously. But you've got to reach out, you've got to contact. You want to start developing that relationship immediately with the guys currently on the team, with the recruits that have already committed. We have to find more. It's going to be pretty hectic, but it's fun. That's why you do this.”
Johnson noted what he is looking for in a pitcher.
“We want players that want to play in the big leagues,” Johnson said. “There's a reason they show up on this campus and didn't sign for a million dollars.
“The biggest thing you've got to look at when you're talking to these guys is what is that piece you're missing to get to the big leagues. That's what we try to attack and try to develop to get them to the next level. When we're out recruiting, those are the things we're looking for.”
Johnson is known for increasing velocity.
“I'm real big on individualizing the process,” Johnson said. “We could sit two guys right here and they could both be throwing a ball 90 miles an hour, but their bodies are completely different.
The other thing I beat into guys is you have to re-prioritize every day. Once you master something, you've got to keep going to the next. This league is unforgiving. Everybody can run. Everybody can hit. There are no holes in anybody's lineup.
“There are a lot of things that go into that. We've got to relentlessly prioritize every day with each guy. I tell them there's always a next level. My famous quote there is even when you get to the big leagues and throw your first no-hitter, there was a guy named Nolan Ryan, he threw seven, go catch him. You throw your eighth one, then we can talk and say you're done prioritizing for that day.”
He would love to have a second straight year of being on a team that went from worst to first.
“I'm just going to come in and do what I do everyday,” Johnson said. “My big thing is I'm a high-energy guy. I believe in teaching guys. we work off the positive. I want them to know what they're doing right as well as what they're doing wrong. But we're really going to focus on what we're doing right with those guys on the mound and build off that.”