How Jay Johnson and Arizona came to fit together so perfectly

Arizona blanks Coastal Carolina to get within a win of CWS title (1:01)

Arizona's JC Cloney pitches a four-hit shutout in a 3-0 victory over Coastal Carolina in Game 1 of the College World Series finals. (1:01)

OMAHA, Neb. -- The long talk came after an out-of-conference game at Arizona State in April. Sandwiched between important home series against Washington State and Stanford, Arizona's late rally fell short and freshman outfielder Alfonso Rivas finished the game on the pitcher's mound.

First-year coach Jay Johnson kept the Wildcats in left field for close to an hour. And after 30 games on the job, Johnson finally let it out. He told his team he wanted to win the national championship.

"That was the first time I ever heard about that," senior second baseman Cody Ramer said.

This was heady stuff for the Wildcats, who had missed the NCAA postseason in each of the past three years. After a 3-0 win Monday over Coastal Carolina in Game 1 of the College World Series finals, they stand one victory away from the program's fifth title.

Game 2 is set for Tuesday night at 8 ET on ESPN.

Another Arizona win in the best-of-three series would make Johnson, 39, the first college baseball coach to win a championship in his first season at a school. Four others have played for the crown and lost.

Already, after four straight Arizona wins in Omaha and five wins in six games, Johnson has lept from being an emerging name to a figure front-and-center in the sport's landscape.

He implores the team to attack the game with a Navy SEAL's intensity, but also to shrug off the pressure of the moment and try to relax.

Johnson is the son of a longtime high school track and field coach from Oroville, California. He's an overachiever who ran his own Division I program for two seasons at Nevada before Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne picked him to take over when Andy Lopez retired last May.

Johnson got his Division I start as an assistant at the University of San Diego. His boss there, Rich Hill, said the young coach blends top-shelf work ethic with integrity and intelligence.

"That's what separates him from everybody else who's coaching college baseball right now," Hill said.

Hyperbole? Maybe not.

Johnson played at Point Loma Nazarene, an National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school, and took over at his alma mater in 2005 at age 27. After one year, Johnson's college coach, Scott Sarver, convinced Hill to hire Johnson at San Diego.

"Trust me," Sarver told Hill. "He's special."

Johnson helped USD climb to new heights in his eight years as an assistant there. The Toreros made six NCAA regional appearances and signed the No. 1- and 2-ranked recruiting classes nationally in 2008 and 2010, respectively, according to Baseball America.

Johnson "carried the torch," Hill said, in landing Kris Bryant, a raw talent out of Las Vegas who blossomed into the 2013 Dick Howser Trophy winner at USD and the 2015 National League Rookie of the Year with the Chicago Cubs.

Bryant hit three homers Monday night for the Cubs in Cincinnati as Johnson moved one step closer to a spot among coaching royalty at the College World Series.

"I don't think my night could get any better," Johnson said after the game.

At Nevada, Johnson finished 72-42 with one Mountain West crown. The Wolf Pack won 41 games in 2015 but missed the 64-team tournament. That miss ate at Johnson, who dreamed of a spot in the CWS during a late-season trip last year when Nevada played Creighton in a two-game series at TD Ameritrade Park.

"That was the No. 1 motivating factor to be at a place where [the Wolf Pack] had won before," Johnson said.

In the minutes after finishing exit interviews with 24 players last season, Johnson received a text message from an associate of Byrne's. Would Johnson be interested in talking about the Arizona job? Of course he was interested.

Later that night, Byrne and Johnson talked on the phone. A few days later, they met in San Diego.

Byrne said he received strong endorsements on Johnson from Lopez, the retiring U of A coach who won a title with the Wildcats in 2012, and Mississippi State coach John Cohen, whom Byrne hired when he was AD at MSU in 2009.

About 30 minutes into the first meeting with Johnson, Byrne said, "I knew I had to hire this person."

Byrne was struck by Johnson's passion, his focus and his plan for Arizona. His strong recruiting ties in Southern California also impressed the AD.

"One of the things that Jay told me when I hired him was that the Arizona job was like the New York Yankees," Byrne said Monday night outside the victorious locker room. "He's a West Coast guy, and he fits extremely well at the U of A."

That said, Johnson earns a base salary of $160,000 with additional income that reportedly pushes him close to $300,000. Several Pac-12 coaches earn in excess of $500,000. Salaries get considerably higher in the SEC.

"I've never talked to that guy in my life, Greg Byrne," said Hill, the San Diego coach, "but he looks like the smartest AD in the world. He could have hired anybody he wanted. And at the same time, I know he's smart enough to do everything he can to hold on to Jay.

"Because there's no hotter commodity in the country right now than him."

Notably, Texas remains without a coach after the retirement last month of Augie Garrido, who won a national championship 21 years ago at Cal State Fullerton and left a year later for the riches of Austin.

"If you're the University of Texas, you do everything you can to pay [Johnson] $1 million," Hill said. "You do a backroom deal, so he can't use it as leverage or anything else, and you get it done. I know who Jay is. Anywhere he goes, that organization will be the best it can be. If you put him at a place like the University of Texas with unlimited resources, watch out."

The 44-year-old Byrne is no newcomer to this business, with coaches Sean Miller and Rich Rodriguez on his payroll.

"The way I look at it," Byrne said, "is that I'd much rather have a coach that's in demand than have one who you're trying to figure out if it's the right fit or not."

Johnson wore the same look Monday night as he did when the Wildcats beat UCLA in a March series and lost three straight at Utah.

His dad, Jerry Johnson, the former coach, "is having the time of his life" in Omaha. Jay Johnson's players dance in the dugout and throw water when they score. But their coach is unwavering.

This is the guy who said he peers at WarrenNolan.com, an RPI-tracking site, 17 times per day.

"I guess you would call it an addiction," Johnson said.

Not an addiction, said Hill. It's steely focus.

"He's got a different motor than anybody else you come in contact with," Hill said. "He's always going."

The San Diego coach recalls visiting Johnson a few years ago at his Point Loma home, near Hill's favorite surfing spot. Hill inquired about Johnson's refrigerator, oven and washer-dryer set, none of which looked like they had ever been used.

But Johnson had two dry-erase boards -- one full of NCAA regional scenarios and the other color-coded and lined with recruiting prospects.

"I was like, 'Dude, no wonder you're single,'" Hill said.

Johnson is growing. He met Maureen Marshall at Nevada. They're getting married. The couple has yet to set a date.

With one more victory here, perhaps Marshall can temporarily pull his attention away from baseball. And they'd have more than a marriage to celebrate.