Appreciate you, Coach Mainieri
BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - I’ll admit it - I like Paul Mainieri.
I’m also aware I don’t pay to attend LSU baseball games or to park near Alex Box Stadium. I haven’t spent money on hotels in Hoover or Omaha. And I don’t own a business that can soar a bit higher if the Tigers reach the College World Series and perhaps win a national championship.
My perspective is certainly different than that of a fan. And I understand that.
What I also know is that of all the many different coaches I’ve covered at LSU in over two decades at WAFB-TV, Mainieri really stands apart. He still owns the same cell phone number he did 15 years ago. And if I call that number, it will always be answered or returned. If Mainieri misses your ring, he will apologize for doing so. During press gatherings, if you ask a question, he’ll address you by your first name each time. You can ask Mainieri questions as wide-spanning as a player failing to lay down a bunt to the importance of being screened for prostate cancer and he’ll deliver articulate, poignant, made-for-television soundbites each time. Very similar to Drew Brees, he’s never lazy with an answer.
Mainieri never declined a charity event I asked him to attend either. If he couldn’t make it, he really couldn’t make it. I’ve never done drugs but you could’ve questioned that fact in the summer of 2008. For whatever reason, I decided to form and “front” a rock cover band called Soundbyte. That fall, I asked Mainieri to introduce the band at a charity event for Hurricane Gustav victims in the original Walk-On’s parking lot, alongside Southern coaching legend Roger Cador. In true Paul Mainieri fashion, he certainly let me know there wasn’t exactly a packed house there to see us. Regardless, the band was introduced and the crowd of 71 folks went wild. There was also collateral damage caused by my dying cat vocal delivery, as later, some guy playing golf across the street at the LSU course informed me how flat I sounded. He suggested singing lessons. I knew this would make for a great story one day and here we are.
In 2009, we really started pushing hard to establish the Red Rock and Blue charity organization to raise money for Louisiana military organizations. Sometime in the spring, I had asked Coach Mainieri to attend the opening ceremonies of our slow-pitch softball tournament in late June and throw out the first pitch. Well, as we know the LSU Tigers rolled through all challengers that season and won the national championship. Mainieri had certainly become extremely busy and deserved to celebrate. I did not expect him to attend our event and just let it lie. But just a couple of days after beating Texas and hoisting the hardware, my cell phone rang on a Thursday evening. It was Coach Mainieri.
“What time do you need me there Saturday, Jacques?”
Coach Mainieri not only drove well over an hour and back to Carencro’s Pelican Park early that morning but signed countless autographs and took pictures with anyone who asked. Some of the Blue Star Mothers of Louisiana often joke that they don’t know much about sports or the people involved with them. But they still remember Coach Mainieri for what he did that day. Incredibly, just days after coaching the Tigers to the national title, he had also been pulled over and given a speeding ticket on his journey into the Acadiana area for our event. To this day, we still joke that “no good deed goes unpunished” and indeed, that officer was clearly no fan of the purple and gold.
Of course, simply being a good guy won’t cut it at the pressure cooker known as LSU. You must win. And Coach Mainieri certainly did that at a very high level. When reflecting on his LSU career, I would focus primarily on the decade from 2008-2017 as Mainieri’s Tiger prime. I throw out his first year in 2007 because no one - Skip Bertman or the late greats Tommy Lasorda or Mainieri’s father Demie - is taking that team to Omaha. Mainieri’s LSU debut finished 29-26-1 and as he once told me, “After fall ball, I thought we were going 15-41.” As someone else who was part of that outfit joked, “We had one pitcher and zero hitters.” In all seriousness, a cluster of players was identified and then developed from that first roster Mainieri inherited - Blake Dean, Ryan Schimpf, Jared Mitchell, Sean Ochinko, Michael Hollander, and Louis Coleman to name several - that spearheaded a 23-game winning streak and CWS appearance in 2008 and then the national championship in 2009. But there’s no doubt Mainieri had taken over a program heading way off course and turned things around almost immediately.
During that 10-year stretch previously referenced, LSU won a national championship, reached another national championship, made the College World Series five times, played in seven Super Regionals, and was a national seed six years in a row. Had pitcher Eric Walker not been injured in Omaha during that magical 2017 run, perhaps Mainieri has two national titles and the perspective is greatly changed. I’m not saying two is the modern day version of five but in today’s much more competitive game of college baseball, it’s a pretty impressive accomplishment. Since 2006, head coach Pat Casey and the Oregon State Beavers have won three national championships, while former South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner and the Gamecocks won back-to-back titles in 2010 and 2011. Tim Corbin and the Vanderbilt Commodores claimed national championships in 2014 and 2019. But clearly, no one has replicated Bertman’s five national titles in 10 years and probably no one ever will in these shark-infested waters.
But change is inevitable and it’s time for one at LSU. The 2019 Tigers were a preseason No. 1 team in every national poll but suffered a gut-wrenching Super Regional defeat in Alex Box Stadium to Florida State. That was a really rough blow. And in early Match of 2020, I distinctly remember being in Houston, Texas watching Oklahoma no-hit LSU on a Sunday afternoon and win 1-0. While we’ll never truly know what would’ve happened with that Tiger team, the general consensus was COVID saved LSU from a mediocre year and prevented Mainieri’s seat from getting hotter.
Which brings us to the present. There have been very few smiles this season, in what has been a lethargic and totally impersonal year. The usually upbeat and jovial Alex Box Stadium atmosphere was even grumpy at times, as fans often spatted with security over masks. LSU has struggled on the field and we’re still clicking an unmute button in early June to interview Mainieri and his players. And while social media is often a dangerous place to test the true temperament of the fan base, things really got unbearably nasty this season. The piling on, the countless insults, and the second-guessing of a man who has won more than 1,500 games in his coaching career became truly toxic. And superimposing Les Miles’s face over the Paul Mainieri uniformed figure standing in the LSU dugout wasn’t funny five years ago. Please, for the love of all things sane, stop with that one.
But as I type this, Coach Mainieri’s LSU career isn’t over yet. There’s still one more NCAA Tournament ahead for the man and five wins between LSU and Omaha. Asking these Tigers to reach the CWS is somewhat like asking a 2.3 student to make straight As on their final exams. It’s not impossible but the odds are strongly against it. But hey, I hope the Tigers have crammed like crazy, are surging on coffee, and can somehow shock the college baseball world.
In closing, the next LSU head baseball coach will come to work each day, park outside Alex Box Stadium, and walk past a giant statue of Skip Bertman. He’ll then practice and play home games on a field named after Skip Bertman. On select occasions, he’ll stand in the LSU dugout and watch former players and coaches return to celebrate the X-year anniversary of the X-year national championship team. And when your program has won six national championships, it can feel like a revolving door of the past and likewise the feeling that you answer to it.
And that glorious past will also include the 15-year anniversary of Paul Mainieri’s national championship squad in 2024. Will that new head coach be on the hot seat by then?
Regardless of what comes next, you’ve done well, Coach. You treated the media and fans with kindness and respect. You pushed your players hard to great heights and sometimes did so with brutal honesty. And that tough love transformed them into men. I know it because they’ve all told me. Your intensely emotional retirement press conference made it abundantly clear that no one has cared, cheered, and bled more for LSU baseball more than you have. And no, you will not be forgotten. Hardly. Your legacy is secure.
Thank you, Coach Mainieri.
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