Derek Johnson had been an assistant baseball coach at Vanderbilt just one year when Tim Corbin took over the reins.
Before Corbin brought in his own staff, then-athletic director Todd Turner suggested Corbin take a closer look at Johnson — a young, promising pitching coach.
“I felt like he was the right guy,” Corbin said. “He had a passion for Vanderbilt. He had a passion for pitching. He was a Midwestern guy who I found to be really loyal. I just loved his way. To this day, it is the best decision that I’ve made.”
Nearly 11 years later, Corbin is letting Johnson go — to the big leagues.
On Sunday, Corbin and Johnson broke the news to the team that Johnson was leaving to become the Chicago Cubs minor league pitching coordinator. Johnson, 41, is the second assistant coach to leave Vanderbilt since June. Travis Jewett replaced hitting coach Josh Holliday, who left to become Oklahoma State’s head coach.
Since 2002, Johnson molded some of the best pitchers in the country.
Under his direction, six players were drafted in the first round — Jeremy Sowers, David Price, Casey Weathers, Mike Minor, Sonny Gray and Grayson Garvin. Price was taken first overall after being the named the collegiate national player of the year in 2007. The right-hander went 20-5 for Tampa Bay this year and is a candidate for the American League Cy Young Award.
During a run to the College World Series in 2011, Johnson guided a pitching staff that set the school record with a 2.44 ERA. Eight pitchers were part of a Southeastern Conference-record 12 players drafted that June.
In 2010, he was named the Assistant Coach of the Year by the American Baseball Coaches Association.
“He is a tremendous teacher,” Corbin said. “He has a passion for development. He loves pitching but he loves kids. He loves teaching that skill. He is very good at it. In the 11 years I was around him, his confidence grew every year. The great thing about DJ was he was so good about what he did but never wanted any credit for it.”
Corbin said he hopes to hire a replacement within three weeks. Along with experience in developing pitchers, Corbin said the ideal candidate will be a good father and husband.
Johnson won’t be far away. He’ll remain in Nashville and travel to the Cubs’ various minor league teams.
“We’ve been inseparable for 11 years,” Corbin said. “We’ve leaned on each other heavily and have a great relationship. He is as close to someone I’ve been with outside of my wife. From a loss standpoint, there is no question about that. But I also think part of the responsibility of a head coach, at least as I see it, is to help shape and develop the lives of everyone inside our program — that is players and coaches alike. When those people get opportunities to become head coaches and CEOs of their own companies, so to speak, I see it as a wonderful experience for everyone.
“The emotion of losing someone like DJ to another opportunity is short-lived compared to the happiness you get from seeing his accomplishment.”