When Dan McDonnell was hired as Louisville’s head baseball coach in the summer of 2006, one of the first things he did was send a text message to Chris Lemonis, his old teammate at The Citadel.
“We roomed together on the road in college,” Lemonis said. “When Dan got hired, I got a text message that said, ‘Hey, I got the job—are you coming?’ I didn’t know anything about the University of Louisville, the city of Louisville, I didn’t know what I was going to make, anything. But it was a pretty easy decision. Not many people have made career decisions off a text message.”
McDonnell and Lemonis played together in the 1990 College World Series with The Citadel, and they served as assistants together on Bulldogs coach Fred Jordan’s staff from 1995-2000. They were groomsmen in each other’s weddings. “Heck I’m the godfather to his oldest daughter,” McDonnell said. “We’re best of friends.”
After hiring Lemonis, McDonnell planned to bring on a young, up-and-coming pitching coach. But he heard through the grapevine that Roger Williams was looking for a better fit after spending one year at Georgia, where he helped the Bulldogs reach Omaha in 2006. McDonnell did not have enough money in his budget to make a run at Williams, an accomplished pitching coach who had spent 11 years on the staff at his alma mater, North Carolina, before leaving for Georgia.
“So here I am going to my athletic director, Tom Jurich I haven’t won a game yet, and I’m saying this is a unique opportunity to get one of the best pitching coaches in the country, but I’m not going to get him for that (salary) slot,” McDonnell recalled. “I said, ‘I’d like to take him to our No. 1 assistant slot and put them both on an even playing field, because they both have the resumes to deserve it.’ Fortunately Rog came up and took to the place, and here we are eight years later, I’ve got the same two assistants.”
In that span, Louisville has become a well-oiled machine, thanks in large part to the efforts of Lemonis and Williams, the co-recipients of the 2013 American Baseball Coaches Association/Baseball America Assistant Coach of the Year Award. The Cardinals have reached six regionals in the last seven years, after making just one prior regional in program history. They have also won three of those regionals and reached the College World Series twice, including in 2013.
Lemonis has firmly established himself as one of college baseball’s top recruiting coordinators, reeling in five Top 25 classes in the last six years.
Williams and McDonnell are also involved with recruiting, but Williams has made his biggest impact through his work with Louisville’s arms. That impact was immediate: in his first season as pitching coach in 2007, Williams inherited a staff that lost six of its top seven arms, and he helped lower the staff ERA from 4.87 to 3.14, fifth-best in the nation. That Cardinal team won 47 games and reached Omaha for the first time in school history.
One of the great stories of that first season was the emergence of righthander Trystan Magnuson. Lemonis points to that case as a prime example of Williams’ skill as a developer. A fifth-year senior in 2007, Magnuson did not get one letter from a major league team before the season. “The first time I saw him, he was 84-86 mph with a 67 curveball,” Lemonis said. “By the end of the year he was 94-95 and a first-round draft pick. That’s probably our best development story—I don’t know how he did it to this day.”
Magnuson deserves credit for working hard to turn himself into a prospect, and also for listening to his pitching coach.
“After watching him in the fall, the two things that stood out that I thought we needed to do with him were, No. 1, we needed to work on his lower half mechanics,” Williams said. “The other thing, I thought he could pick up a cutter/slider hybrid easily. Trystan had no visions of professional baseball at that time. He was planning on an engineering degree. But he worked his tail off, and as the season progressed, his fastball velocity bumped up, and the slider got tighter and harder. No doubt, it was one of the funnest and most gratifying experiences I’ve had with a kid.”
That anecdote captures Williams’ coaching approach well. Like most great pitching coaches, he treats each pitcher as an individual. “I don’t get hung up on one particular thing—getting them to throw out of the same arm slot, or have the same deliveries,” Williams said. “I look at it on a case-by-case basis, and I’ve always taken that approach to it.”
When Louisville was eliminated by North Carolina in the CWS at the end of that first season, Jurich called McDonnell to a meeting.
“I still had my uniform on, I was going to shower, but he said, ‘No, come right now,’ ” McDonnell said. “I sat down and the first thing out of his mouth was, ‘What do we have to do to keep our two assistants?’ When Tom made that comment, I was like, ‘Man, he really gets it. He understands that these guys are going to do the bulk of the recruiting, the bulk of the teaching.’ Fortunately they trust me. There’s a lot of respect between the three of us.”
It did not take long for Williams to get comfortable with McDonnell and Lemonis, the two longtime friends. Williams is quieter and less “bubbly” than Lemonis, as both he and McDonnell put it, but all three agree that their personalities complement each other well.
“I’m probably on the spazzy side—always 10 minutes early,” Lemonis said. “Roger is on the other end, as laid back as they come. I almost think our personalities make us a perfect fit—we work well together. Sometimes it’s hard to sell yourself when I feel like I’m selling the best pitching coach in the country.”
McDonnell has the utmost confidence in Lemonis’ ability to coach the hitters, just as he does in Williams to run the pitching staff. Lemonis has plenty of his own developmental success stories, like that of Phil Wunderlich, who hit one home run as an unheralded freshmen, then hit 18 and 21 in his next two seasons. Lemonis helped him become an All-American.
“For me, the best thing I ever did was just get out of their way. Just trust them,” McDonnell said. “I love coaching the infielders and coaching the baserunning, and I feel like I have to raise my game to keep up with those guys. We know how good Chris has been with the hitters and Rog has been with the pitchers. There’s a healthy competitiveness there, people are counting on you to do your part.”
McDonnell knows it’s only a matter of time before other major programs scoop up Lemonis and Williams to be head coaches.
“There’s a part of me as a head coach that thinks, ‘Uh-oh. When they leave, it will be a very healthy challenge ahead of us,’ ” McDonnell said. “But I think that’s the way it should be. I think it’s a good thing when it happens, but I’m trying to enjoy having them as each year goes on and you’ve got them for another year.”