Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell had only been home from Omaha for a couple of days, yet he was already planning his next move. July is no time for rest.
McDonnell had his eyes on the Futures Game in Miami, where 2016 first-rounder Corey Ray will play. He thought about sticking around for the major league Home Run Derby, too, in case 2010 Louisville draftee Adam Duvall participated again. He sent a text to Brendan McKay, the No. 4 overall pick and 2017 College Player of the Year, to congratulate him on the $7.005 million bonus he just signed.“Be who you are,” McDonnell told him. “Don’t let the crooked number and the zeros—don’t let that change you, man.”
Those players are all products of the McDonnell Era, a few of the pillars that have helped prop Louisville baseball into elite territory. McDonnell is quick to credit those players, his assistant coaches and his athletic director, Tom Jurich, for Louisville’s success. And while they’ve all played crucial roles, it’s no coincidence that the Cardinals have emerged as a national power under the guidance of McDonnell—Baseball America’s College Coach of the Year. The award reflects a decade of excellence.
Since McDonnell took over the program in 2007, Louisville has the third-most wins of any school in the country. In the last five years, no team has more wins. After making only one NCAA Tournament appearance previously, in 2002, the Cardinals have made 10 appearances in McDonnell’s 11 seasons. This year marked Louisville’s fourth trip to the College World Series—all under McDonnell, including his debut season.
“In one sense, you don’t ever want to think, ‘I never saw that coming,’” McDonnell said. “But in another sense, it happened quickly. That first year, the success we had and the response by Tom Jurich and the athletic department was like, ‘Hey, we’re in as much as you’re in on this.’ And so we just grew together. And that’s why we are where we’re at now.”
McDonnell often tells his players, “God’s dreams are bigger for us than our own dreams for ourselves.”
“And I’ve always thought I’m a pretty big dreamer,” he said.
He came to Louisville after spending six years as Mississippi’s recruiting coordinator under Mike Bianco, who taught him the Skip Bertman system of coaching. The eight years before that, McDonnell coached under Fred Jordan at The Citadel, where he’d played for the 1990 CWS team. There he soaked up the toughness and work ethic required to thrive at a military school.
All of those experiences instilled in McDonnell a hunger for greatness. Fortunately for him, his athletic director felt the same hunger. Louisville was once viewed as a stepping-stone school. Now, thanks to McDonnell’s vision and the school’s investment in the sport, it’s become a destination.
“I don’t think anybody could’ve foreseen something this exceptional—what he’s done,” Jurich said of McDonnell. “He’s not only just a wonderful addition to the university and the athletic department, but he’s a wonderful addition to the community, and he’s really put baseball on the map here.”
Jurich signed McDonnell to a 10-year extension with a $1 million annual base salary prior to the 2017 season. The deal is fitting, given that McDonnell and his staff have helped make several Cardinals millionaires over the last few drafts.
Louisville quickly has evolved into one of the country’s top programs in terms of player development. Kyle Funkhouser (35th overall, 2015), Ray (No. 5 overall, 2016) and McKay (No. 4 overall, 2017) make it three straight years that Louisville has set a record for its highest draft pick ever.
The Cardinals have achieved those feats while mainly recruiting Kentucky, Pennsylvania and the Midwest, particularly Illinois. Those areas aren’t known as baseball hotbeds, but McDonnell and his staff help mold those recruits into winners with the culture they’ve established at Louisville.
“They’re not getting the high-profile guys some schools may get, the big rankings or all the accolades they have, but they get guys that they know are players,” said McKay, who hails from the Pittsburgh area.
“You’ve got to earn everything you get here. You’re not given anything. You’ve got to come in (and) show why you should be in the lineup.”
That competitive culture proved imperative this year, with a Cardinals team that lost three 2016 first-rounders and seven players total to the draft. McDonnell never called it a rebuilding year—and he meant it. The Cardinals finished 53-12 and earned the No. 7 national seed. They won the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Atlantic Division for the third time in the three years since joining the ACC in 2015. The Cardinals lost another eight players to the draft this June, including McKay, Drew Ellis, Colby Fitch and Devin Hairston. Still, McDonnell is not ready to call 2018 a rebuilding year.
“Sometimes it is what it is, we are who we are, and we’re only going to be able to go so far,” McDonnell said.
“But I don’t know if I can sleep with myself if I didn’t think I challenged these guys, pushed these guys and at least gave them every opportunity to believe that they’d have a chance to win a national championship.”
McDonnell hasn’t stopped dreaming those big dreams. And why should he?
They keep coming true.
|College Coach of the Year|
|1981||Ron Fraser, Miami|
|1982||Gene Stephenson, Wichita State|
|1983||Barry Shollenberger, Alabama|
|1984||Augie Garrido, Cal State Fullerton|
|1985||Ron Polk, Mississippi State|
|1986||Skip Bertman, Louisiana State|
|Dave Snow, Loyola Marymount|
|1987||Mark Marquess, Stanford|
|1988||Jim Brock, Arizona State|
|1989||Dave Snow, Long Beach State|
|1990||Steve Webber, Georgia|
|1991||Jim Hendry, Creighton|
|1992||Andy Lopez, Pepperdine|
|1993||Gene Stephenson, Wichita State|
|1994||Jim Morris, Miami|
|1995||Rod Delmonico, Tennessee|
|1996||Skip Bertman, Louisiana State|
|1997||Jim Wells, Alabama|
|1998||Pat Murphy, Arizona State|
|1999||Wayne Graham, Rice|
|2000||Ray Tanner, South Carolina|
|2001||Dave Van Horn, Nebraska|
|2002||Augie Garrido, Texas|
|2003||George Horton, Cal State Fullerton|
|2004||David Perno, Georgia|
|2005||Rick Jones, Tulane|
|2006||Pat Casey, Oregon State|
|2007||Dave Serrano, UC Irvine|
|2008||Mike Fox, North Carolina|
|2009||Paul Mainieri, Louisiana State|
|2010||Ray Tanner, South Carolina|
|2011||Kevin O’Sullivan, Florida|
|2012||Mike Martin, Florida State|
|2013||John Savage, UCLA|
|2014||Tim Corbin, Vanderbilt|
|2015||Brian O’Connor, Virginia|
|2016||Jim Schlossnagle, Texas Christian|
|2017||Dan McDonnell, Louisville|