LSU Coaching Search, Job Profile And Candidates

Louisiana State head coach Paul Mainieri on May 28 announced his retirement, effective at the end of the season, which the Tigers hope comes some time after hearing their name called during the NCAA Tournament selection show. 

The announcement brings an end to a 15-year tenure in Baton Rouge that saw Mainieri go 637-282-3 with 11 regional appearances and five trips to the College World Series, including a national title in 2009 and a runner-up finish in 2017. 

It also marks the end of an illustrious career that goes well beyond his time with LSU. After beginning his career at Division II St. Thomas (Fla.), Mainieri moved to Air Force, where he was the second-winningest coach in program history before being passed in recent years by current Falcons coach Mike Kazlausky, who played for Mainieri at the Academy. 

From there, Mainieri spent 12 years at Notre Dame, where he built the Irish into a Big East power, highlighted by a CWS appearance in 2002. All told, he’ll leave the game with 39 years as a head coach and more than 1,500 wins under his belt. 

When he arrived at LSU, the Tigers were stinging from missing the 2006 NCAA Tournament. After another regional miss in Mainieri’s first year in 2007, he led the Tigers back to Omaha in 2008 before winning the national title in year three on the job. 

LSU has remained a consistent winner as the years have gone by, with return trips to the CWS in 2013, 2015 and 2017, the last of which ending in the Tigers finishing as the runner-up. That said, there was increasing impatience within a fan base that expects LSU to be a national title contender year in and year out. 

Since that runner-up finish in the 2017 CWS, LSU’s results in SEC play have slipped a bit, and in 2021, it needed a late push to even be in a position to hope for an at-large bid. Home super regional exits, such as in 2012 to upstart Stony Brook, 2016 to the eventual national champion Coastal Carolina and in 2019 to Florida State were also a sticking point. 

Overall, it’s impossible to look at Mainieri’s time in Baton Rouge as anything but a success, but make no mistake, showing improvement out of the gate relatively quickly is a prerequisite for his successor.

Previous Head Coach

Paul Mainieri: 637-282-3, 15 years

Job Description

LSU is perhaps the most recognizable brand in college baseball thanks to groundwork laid by legendary coach Skip Bertman. Coming with that is a rabid fan base that is only rivaled by a couple of other SEC teams, facilities that are top-notch, and every resource a program needs to be an annual national title contender. But those expectations cut both ways. This is as pressure-filled a job as there is in college baseball. Seasons that would be considered successful at most other major conference programs are unacceptable in Baton Rouge. LSU is one of the very best gigs in the sport, but it is not for the faint of heart. 

Will the Texas A&M opening create competition?

The Texas A&M job is also open. While the Aggies don’t have near the history of LSU, there are a lot of factors like geography and availability of resources that put it in at least a similar class with the Tigers when you’re stacking up the best jobs in college baseball. The two schools certainly project to put their respective new coaches at the top of coaching salary lists. So, while there will be candidates unique to each of the openings, there will also be some overlap between the two, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that LSU athletic director Scott Woodward’s previous stop was as the AD at A&M. 

LSU will think big

In most coaching searches, there is a list of coaches the school would really want to be the next coach and then a separate list of coaches who would realistically accept the job. The coaches who appear on both lists are the primary targets. But at a job like LSU, those two lists can be identical, as just about any coach would have to at least listen if LSU was interested. It would not be a surprise to see high-profile sitting head coaches who would be untouchable under almost any circumstances show interest in this opening. 

The Candidates

Not only is LSU on the shortlist for best jobs in the country, but Woodward has a track record of swinging for the fences and connecting for home run hires. He did that earlier this spring when he hired women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey away from Baylor, where she coached for 20 years and won three national titles. He did it in his previous job at A&M, when he hired football coach Jimbo Fisher away from Florida State, where he had won the 2013 national championship. 

So often, major job searches are not easy. In recent years, both Texas and Mississippi State experienced protracted searches. But Woodward’s track record suggests LSU may be able to avoid a similar fate while still picking from the industry’s elite.

Any list of best coaches in the country will include Florida’s Kevin O’Sullivan near, if not at, the top. There are rumors that he would entertain an offer from LSU, just as he did in 2016 with Texas. Florida moved to extend O’Sullivan’s contract in the wake of Texas’ interest, signing him to a 10-year contract, worth $1.25 million a year. O’Sullivan responded by winning the national championship the following season and Florida has since built a new, $65 million ballpark.

So, would O’Sullivan, 52, leave all that behind for Baton Rouge? The allure of the LSU job is real and maybe he’s ready for a new challenge. On the other hand, he in November signed the top-ranked 2021 recruiting class and is set up to win big in the coming years in Gainesville. 

Texas Christian’s Jim Schlossnagle has been in the mix for the biggest jobs that have opened in recent years and this year is no different, as he’s expected to be a candidate at both A&M and LSU. His success speaks for itself – he has led TCU to Omaha five times and again this year has a team capable of making that kind of run – and he’s one of the biggest names in the business. 

Tennessee’s Tony Vitello merits a long look. Vitello, 42, is known for his recruiting prowess, something that is crucial to success in the SEC. He’s also quickly proven himself as a head coach. In 2019, his second season, he led the Volunteers to regionals for the first time since 2005 and this year Tennessee is 42-14, won the SEC East for the first time since 1997 and is in line to host a regional. Still, hiring away a sitting SEC head coach is difficult and hasn’t been done since John Cohen left Kentucky for Mississippi State, his alma mater, in 2008.

East Carolina’s Cliff Godwin has already turned down Alabama and Mississippi State to remain as the head coach of his alma mater and has made it clear that he wants to lead the Pirates to their first CWS appearance. But LSU is different than Alabama and Mississippi State and even A&M. Godwin, 43, worked under Mainieri for four seasons – two at Notre Dame and two at LSU – and so he knows what it takes to win in Baton Rouge. 

Godwin’s former college teammate, Michigan’s Erik Bakich, has previously turned down overtures from premium programs (South Carolina and Stanford) to stay at his current job. But LSU could be a different story. Bakich, 43, led Michigan to the College World Series finals in 2019 and has SEC experience as a former Vanderbilt assistant coach. There aren’t many boxes he wouldn’t check.

Arizona’s Jay Johnson also checks a lot of boxes. He’s built an impressive track record as a head coach – he led Arizona to a runner-up finish at the 2016 CWS and the Wildcats this year won their first Pac-12 title since 2012. He’s a premier recruiter, a reputation that dates to his days as an assistant coach at San Diego, where he brought in Kris Bryant. He’s also a great hitting coach and might have the best offense in the country this year. It’s rare for a coach to move from the Pac-12 to the SEC, but Johnson would be up to the challenge. 

LSU went to Notre Dame the last time it needed a coach, could history repeat itself 15 years later? Link Jarrett, 49, has certainly impressed in his two seasons in South Bend. He this year led the Fighting Irish to their first ACC title since joining the league and will guide them to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2015. Jarrett also impressed as a head coach at UNC Greensboro, leading the Spartans in successive seasons to their first NCAA Tournament appearance and regular-season title in 20 years. 

Virginia’s Brian O’Connor was involved in the Texas search in 2016 but chose to stay in Charlottesville. Virginia has scuffled over the last five years, twice missing the NCAA Tournament, but he’s still undeniably one of the top coaches in the country. O’Connor was an assistant coach at Notre Dame under Mainieri and has since built Virginia into one of the best programs in the ACC. 

One wild card is Pat Casey. The former Oregon State coach retired in September 2018 after 24 years as a head coach and has been working in the athletic department since. But he’s never closed the door on returning to the dugout. It would be a big change, but if Casey, 62, is ready for a return, this would be an intriguing opportunity.

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