Racing the sunrise from Starkville to Dallas Saturday morning, Wes Johnson was on his second crack-of-dawn flight in as many days, using the time to watch video of some of his new players. Friday morning he had flown to Starkville to be named the new pitching coach of Mississippi State baseball. Saturday morning he was flying back to Dallas, less than 24 hours after his introductory press conference, because he had made the most serious and unbreakable of vows: the quadruple pinky promise.
“A death promise,” he elaborated.
For all the excitement over a new job, for all the people to meet, all the highlights to watch and recruits to call, Johnson had a commitment he couldn’t back out on. He’d promised his six-year-old daughter he’d take her trick-or-treating this year, no matter what.
The “what” turned out to be his new job at MSU, a possibility he hadn’t even thought of when he promised his little girl he’d take her around the neighborhood this year. Because of work as the pitching coach at Dallas Baptist University, he’d missed the last two Halloweens. So, despite how silly he felt doing it, Johnson had to explain the situation to his new boss when he was on his way to Starkville.
“I know this is kind of a crazy request,” Johnson told head coach John Cohen. “I’ll be right back, but I can’t miss this one. It would be a tough one to explain.”
Cohen, a man with daughters of his own, understood completely.
“Oh, absolutely,” he told Johnson. “Go. We’ll get you back after.”
Which he did, of course, when Johnson flew back Monday for his first real day on the job, working with his pitchers and putting plans into action for the 2016 season. After some trick-or-treating, that is.
The fact Johnson requested such a thing and the way Cohen supported his wish show why the hire was such a natural fit for both parties. Cohen runs a program based on the principles and values of family, and built on the support of a college town that approaches life the same way. Johnson is a family man whose philosophies line up similarly, born and raised in a small town outside of Fayetteville, Arkansas, taught to cherish and protect relationships.
He’s incredibly proud of his family, dependent on them to a degree, as he referred to his wife as his Director of Operations when introduced last Friday.
“I’m serious when I say this. It’s tough for a guy, I believe, to be in this position without a strong wife or somebody like that in your life,” Johnson said. “She’s awesome. She’s the best thing about me. I’m just real fortunate and I can’t thank her enough for what she does for me every day.”
His youngest daughter, the one who dressed as Supergirl for Halloween, now has “more candy than we know what to do with.” His oldest is a son, 22 years old, who is getting married next summer. His middle one is a high school junior, all at once a daughter, a basketball player and a baseball nut.
“She’ll know every guy on our team, where he’s from, what he does,” Johnson said. “When I get home from a game, she’ll want to talk. ‘Hey dad, why did this happen? Why’d y’all do this? Why’d you take this guy out?’”
Johnson’s father passed away in 2003, but the childhood he remembers was one with a close-knit family, a tight group who spent time together and cared about he each other. He always wants to provide the same for his kids.
When the opportunity to join MSU came, the conversations with his wife weren’t all about money or fame. He was able to look at her and say, “this is kind of like where we grew up. It’s that kind of town.”
It’s not just his family, though. Johnson is all about relationships in general. Honesty, too, within those relationships. Just as his father inspired him to be the dad he is today, his former coaches inspired him to be the coach he is today.
Johnson’s approach is to be 100 percent honest with his players. He could lie and make them feel good, he knows, but he thinks being direct and open is the best approach. He’ll love them when they need it, he says, and go hard on them when they need that, too.
Johnson knows that when young men come to play college baseball, they see their coaches more than they see their own parents. It’s a responsibility he doesn’t take lightly. It’s also what made him want to be a coach in the first place.
“When people pour into you, you grow from it,” Johnson said as he reminisced on the coaches who helped mold him. “You get older and it’s kind of like, man, that’s what I want to do. I want to impact young men’s lives.”
It’s an approach he works hard on, too. One of the many happy moments he had in his first day was finding out he gets a staff discount at the bookstore on campus. He’s always reading books, specifically ones that will help him be a better coach, father, mentor and person. He reads about how to get the most out of people, how to get the most out of himself, and even books on sales, marketing and public relations. His job is to work with people, and specifically to help them. He takes it seriously.
As serious as he is, though, as many players as he’s helped send to into the pros, as much command as he’s taught and as much velocity as he’s developed in his pitchers, he still the softie who couldn’t miss trick-or-treating with his daughter, too.
“Pinky promises are real big,” he explained. “After the quadruple pinky promise that I would not miss Halloween this year, I had to get back.”