Denton product Johnson guides Longhorn arms to Omaha
Skip Johnson’s ability to teach people how to throw a baseball 60 feet, 6 inches has impacted where youngsters have gone to college, turned college pitchers into major-leaguers and helped turn professional pitchers into millionaires.
Johnson has made stops across the state over the years, but Texas pitchers have known where to find him.
He’s been the pitching coach at Texas since 2007 and is a huge reason why the Longhorns are one of eight teams that will be contending for the national championship at the College World Series.
Texas opens the tournament at 2 p.m. Saturday against California-Irvine.
“I tell people all the time that I don’t have magic dust that I throw on top of them [players] and all of a sudden they’re better,” Johnson said. “You set a structured plan and you believe in that plan, and it works. Sometimes it works for people; sometimes it doesn’t.”
More often than not, Johnson’s methods have worked.
Johnson will be one of two Denton coaches in Omaha for the College World Series. The other is Johnson’s best friend, Texas Tech head coach Tim Tadlock. Ryan assistant coach Kris Slivocka said the pair set a good example for baseball players growing up in Denton and have expanded the area’s baseball tradition.
“Working hard was always No. 1 with them [Tadlock and Johnson],” Slivocka said. “I think that’s something that trickled down to us younger guys.”
Johnson’s work last weekend was far from over once the Longhorns defeated Houston to clinch their spot in the CWS. Johnson watched two of his pupils, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw and Cincinnati Reds pitcher Homer Bailey, pitch for their National League clubs on television.
Kershaw, a Highland Park native, owns two NL Cy Young awards. Bailey, a La Grange product, has thrown two no-hitters. Kershaw will text Johnson for advice from time to time, while Bailey will call the UT pitching coach for a few pointers.
“That’s two pitchers right there that really respect Skip and confide in him and send him tapes, even during the major-league season,” Texas head coach Augie Garrido said. “He communicates with them and several others he works with in the major leagues. I think that’s a pretty strong endorsement.”
Garrido, the winningest coach in Division I baseball history, was in need of a pitching coach in 2007 and looked to Johnson, who was the head coach at Navarro College at the time. Johnson had sent many pitchers from the college to Austin, and the two had developed a strong bond.
Johnson’s 450 wins at Navarro and nine Texas Eastern Athletic Conference titles probably didn’t hurt when it came to why Garrido hired Johnson.
Whoa Dill, who took over at Navarro when Johnson departed, went to Navarro out of high school because he wanted to pitch for a man known across Texas for his ability to teach pitchers. Dill not only acquired a few pitching tips, he also inherited a program with great tradition once Johnson left.
“He built that program and took it to totally different heights,” Dill said. “It was a different level, different caliber of players in there, and it made it easier for me to come in and start recruiting. He built that program from the ground up.”
Before he transformed Navarro’s program and Texas’ pitching rotation, Johnson was an 11-year-old told by Billy Ryan to not throw curveballs until he turned 15. He was Denton’s starting pitcher — a right-hander who loved to throw his slider and spend hours in the batting cage in Bret Warnack’s backyard.
He was the same kid who worked from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Morrison Milling Co. on East Prairie Street, then left work with Tadlock to play with the American Legion team — typically in Sherman or Fort Worth.
Johnson, whose birth name is Arthur, took everything he learned from his youth days under coach W.H. Rainey up to his days with the Broncos and head coach Tommy Blair and went on to play at Ranger College, North Texas and Texas-Pan American before he became a coach and one of Texas’ best pitching minds.
“He was not a guy that was blessed with a great amount of talent as a player,” Warnack said of the 1985 Denton graduate. “Because of that, he studied a lot. It was important for him to be good, and he studied a lot and perfected every ability that he had. And because of that, he knows how to get that out of his players as well.
“The biggest thing is that he knows how to show guys how to be tough. When he stepped on the field, he brought a certain mentality that he was better than anybody out there, regardless of his talent.”
His talent as a coach has brought the most out of players at Navarro and Texas. For Johnson, the process of refinement might be more enjoyable than the end results.
“It’s just an honor to work here and change people’s lives in doing the best you can every day,” Johnson said. “That’s all you can do. You’re here to carve your name on a kid’s heart, more than anything. That’s the biggest thing that I try to do day in and day out. You build those relationships, and if championships come along the way, that’s awesome too.”
BEN BABY can be reached at 940-566-6869 and via Twitter at @Ben_Baby.
COLLEGE WORLD SERIES
Team (2014 record)
Texas Tech (45-19)
* — Champion in 1949, 1950, 1975, 1983, 2002, 2005