OMAHA—Paul Mainieri never wanted to be Mickey Mantle or Joe Morgan or Bob Gibson.
“Growing up the son of a coach, most kids grow up wanting to be major league baseball players, but I wanted to be a college baseball coach,” Mainieri said. “Growing up talking about Bobby Winkles, and Rod Dedeaux, and Augie Garrido—those are my heroes.”
And Demie Mainieri, of course. Demie, Paul’s father, was the legendary coach at Miami Dade CC-North, where he became the first junior college coach to win 1,000 games in 1990.
Paul followed in his father’s huge footsteps, getting into coaching after one season as a second baseman in pro ball. After three years as an assistant at Miami’s Christopher Columbus High, and six as the head coach at Biscayne (Fla.) College (now called St. Thomas), and six more as the head coach at Air Force, and 12 at the helm at Notre Dame, Mainieri took over as the head coach at Louisiana State in 2006. In just three seasons, he has led the Tigers out of a rough patch and back to the pinnacle of college baseball, culminating in the school’s sixth national championship in 2009. For restoring that proud program to its former glory—and doing it the right way at every step—Mainieri is Baseball America’s Coach of the Year.
“I don’t think anybody could have done it any faster or classier,” Skip Bertman said of the turnaround from missing regionals in 2006 and ’07 to reaching Omaha in ’08 and ’09.
Building It Back
That praise means something coming from Bertman, the legendary former coach who led LSU to five national titles from 1991-2000.
Bertman served as LSU’s athletic director after retiring from coaching in 2001, and he said he originally wanted to hire Mainieri as his successor. But Mainieri’s contract at Notre Dame was a stumbling block, and Bertman gave the job to his assistant, Smoke Laval.
When Laval was forced to resign after the Tigers missed regionals in 2006, Bertman ratcheted up his pursuit of Mainieri.
“This time, I interviewed some other people, but I really only wanted Paul,” Bertman said.
No wonder. Bertman has known Mainieri since he was 9 years old, and Bertman was the coach at Miami Beach High. Demie Mainieri recruited many of Bertman’s players, and the two became friends. Bertman would come to Mainieri family dinners and give young Paul hitting lessons in the batting cage behind the house.
Paul played for Columbus High and competed against Bertman’s teams, then spent his freshman year as an outfielder at LSU, where he met his future wife, a Tigers cheerleader named Karen. Mainieri transferred to Miami Dade-North as a sophomore to play for his father, then finished his collegiate career at New Orleans. But he never lost his affection for LSU, even when his coaching career took off at Air Force and Notre Dame.
“Then as time went on, somewhere in the back of my mind I started thinking, ‘Boy, I wonder if I could someday succeed Skip at LSU,'” Mainieri said. “But it seemed like such a pipe dream. It took a lot of courage for Skip to hire me. You’re talking about an enormous fan base, and he went up to the North to bring a coach down.
“I can imagine the people in Baton Rouge saying, ‘What are you bringing a Northern coach down for?’ But Skip knew my background, and I think he knew I was ready for it.”
“In my mind,” Bertman said, “As I told people when he first came, this guy can’t miss, because he’s so friendly and approachable. Everybody at LSU, with the fan base, they want to know the coach. They want to know the coach personally, and Paul’s available for all that.”
Mainieri comes across as incredibly friendly, genuine and nice, but he’s no pushover. His new players at LSU learned that early on.
“Coming in as a freshman, you don’t know what to expect,” junior DH Blake Dean said. “Coach basically just sat you down and told you how it was going to be. If you messed up, you were going to pay the price for it. We had people late for study hall, being 10 or 15 minutes late for team meetings—you had to pay for all that. There was all kinds of stuff you had to do as punishment to give you reminders of what was expected. Eventually, people stopped messing up—they didn’t want to run anymore, they didn’t want to do punishment work. So it basically evolved into discipline, getting your work done, doing what you need to do.”
Junior outfielder/infielder Ryan Schimpf said Mainieri forms such a strong bond with his players that they feel like his own kids. The ability to maintain that balance between approachability and discipline is a key to Mainieri’s success.
Doing It The Right Way
It was evident in Omaha from the first day, as Mainieri got emotional while sitting next to Virginia coach Brian O’Connor, his former assistant at Notre Dame, in the pre-Series press conference. He set aside the personal bond, though, and got his team past the Cavaliers in a hard-fought 9-5 victory.
“The reason Paul Mainieiri is the best coach in college baseball is he does it the right way,” O’Connor said. “He doesn’t take shortcuts. He treats the players like men, and doesn’t suffocate them.”
But it’s not just Mainieri’s interpersonal skills that make him the Coach of the Year. Mainieri teaches the fundamentals of baseball extremely well and doesn’t use “gadgets”, as he puts it. And he has a great feel for when to make moves, both in games and when it comes to filling out his lineup card.
Case in point: The Tigers took off in 2009 after Mainieri had the guts to shake up his lineup to improve his defense, which wasn’t turning enough double plays. He moved preseason All-American shortstop D.J. LeMahieu to second base, shifted preseason All-American second baseman Schimpf to left field, and installed freshmen Austin Nola at shortstop and Mikie Mahtook in center field. LSU went 28-5 after Nola took over at short on April 21.
“Naturally he’s very modest and always gives credit to the kids, as you should,” Bertman said. “But in watching college baseball for 45 years as I have, I can tell you, he has great—I call it mojo. M-O-J-O. It’s a magic, a mixture. Who knows exactly, really what it is, but he’s got it.”