Just two summers ago it appeared the LSU baseball program was totally set. Set to dominate, set to make Omaha their home away from home and set to be consistently elite. The Tigers had once again returned to the pinnacle of collegiate baseball after defeating powerful Texas for the national championship. The school had just introduced their brand new, $40 million Alex Box Stadium. Surely a pipeline of endless, highly ranked recruiting classes would follow, all begging to play in this Taj Mahal. Head Coach Paul Mainieri had proven to be the genius hire Skip Bertman had hoped for. Mainieri took over a program that had missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 18 years and led them back to the top in just three short seasons. His endless energy, unwavering effort to accommodate fans and sharp public relations skills were three big areas Mainieri thrived in. Traits always lacking in predecessor Smoke Laval. From late April of 2008 to late April of 2010, LSU was a relentless machine, posting a 114-26 overall record and a sparkling SEC mark of 43-14. Everything was going right. The boys were back in town.
But somehow between then and now, a blissful situation has gone seriously awry. These days nothing is going right and LSU baseball simply is no fun.
It's almost like LSU sold their soul to the devil for that success and indeed there is hell to pay. Or the "Baseball Gods" are repaying the bad fortune 5-1 over the good luck granted during the Tigers' 23 game winning streak back in '08. The 2011 LSU Tigers have already lost 17 games, matching the TOTAL number of defeats suffered by the 2009 national championship squad. This past weekend's dominating sweep at the hands of #3 Vanderbilt dropped the Tigers 4-14 in the SEC. Just 7-25 in their last 32 regular season conference games dating back to last season. LSU's struggles away from home are even more jaw-dropping. LSU is just 2-19 in their last seven conference series away from Baton Rouge, having been swept in five of those. Right now, some people are actually praising Smoke on the internet.
Let's get this out of the way. LSU was never this bad under Laval's watch, but it was obviously time for him to go. True, even his last and worst team still finished 35-24 overall, made the SEC Tournament and actually won a game in Hoover. Laval also left behind a host of talented players pivotal to Mainieri's two trips to the College World Series and the national championship; Louis Coleman, Blake Dean, Ryan Schimpf, Sean Ochinko, Jared Bradford and Michael Hollander to name a batch. Smoke did many good things and deserves his fair share of credit. However, the LSU's roster as a whole, top to bottom was severely lacking when he was pushed out. And although Smoke did make two trips to Omaha, he posted an 0-4 record there and the Tigers certainly were giving no indication they'd return anytime soon. Fan enthusiasm had been sucked dry, attendance was plummeting and neither would have improved. Laval, despite some people's perception, is still a very intelligent and knowledgeable baseball coach. He was simply destined to fail, although he really didn't fail at all, posting a 210-109-1 overall record and winning more SEC games than any other coach during his five year stay. Smoke was simply not Skip.
And Mainieri is not Smoke …. at least when it comes to accountability. While Laval grew angry and bitter towards the media near the end of his LSU stay and didn't seem to embrace LSU's lofty expectations … Paul Mainieri answers questions just as thoroughly and respectfully during the good times, as he does during the bad.
"It bothers me that we've gone from the national championship to the place we're at now. It should've never have happened. There have been some bad decisions made on my part. It's nobody's fault but mine," said a weary Mainieri, during a somewhat emotional meeting with the local press Monday, "But I know how to fix it. I have several things in mind. But that's not to share now. We still have four weeks left in the regular season."
Fans are certainly speculating what those bad decisions have been. Mainieri's recruiting efforts and assistant coaching hires are the two most popular answers, just if you're curious. Will (not a pun) an assistant coach have to take a spear after the season? Will some players, ala Chris Matulis last year, be shown the door? The coach is adamant this is not the time to ask those questions or throw stones.
Mainieri believes the story of this year has yet to be written and plenty of good things can still be accomplished. Indeed, LSU's final four SEC series come against teams with a combined conference mark of 24-48. If the Tigers can somehow find their lost confidence and go 9-3 over that stretch … they can make the SEC Tournament. That, along with their previous sweep over #10 Cal State Fullerton earlier this year (seems like another lifetime) and a nice midweek win over #15 Southern Miss could make their resume beefy enough to reach the NCAA Tournament. And let's not forget last year, an LSU team in morbid condition, again found their magic at the SEC Tournament and won the event for a third straight year. That accomplishment carries with it an automatic NCAA bid. But LSU actually has to reach Hoover first.
"There's no tomorrow. There's no moral victories. It's time to get the job done." Mainieri said, as he pounded his fist to his desk.
You hope they do. While I understand it's my job to remain impartial, I can't help but root for Paul Mainieri to turn things around. He's a good man, and the kindest, most accommodating coach I've ever dealt with during my 10 years at WAFB. He once got up on Saturday morning shortly after the 2009 National Championship and drove well over an hour and back to throw out the first pitch at my charity softball tournament in Carencro. A police officer actually gave him a speeding ticket along the way. Yes, Mainieri is batting 1.000 when it comes to community service and doing whatever he can to help others. If he can be there, he will be.
I realize none of that has anything to do with the ultimate bottom line … wins and losses. And if LSU continues to fail at this rate, the Tigers could be looking for a new baseball coach in the summer of 2012. However, I really hope not.
Because Paul Mainieri has already proven that nice guys can finish first, not last. And I hope somehow he corrects this current crisis and will do it again.