Commentary

Following legend Bertman no easy task

LSU coach Mainieri says swagger is back for Tiger baseball

Updated: June 4, 2009, 12:45 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

College coaching is all about rules.

Game rules, NCAA rules, the rules of fair play -- you name a regulation, and chances are a collegiate skipper has to follow it.

But there is one rule that every coach knows, fears and does all he can to abide by.

You do not follow a legend.

[+] EnlargePaul Mainieri
Crystal LoGiudice/US PresswirePaul Mainieri says he's never lacked self-confidence, and that certainly helped when he took over.

Ask Gene Bartow, who took over from John Wooden at UCLA and received death threats after going 28-5 and making the Final Four.

Or ask the gaggle of guys who have lived in the shadow of Woody Hayes at Ohio State or Adolph Rupp at Kentucky. Hell, ask John Adams about following George Washington.

They will all tell you the same story. It's no fun.

So, why oh why, did Paul Mainieri take over the baseball job at LSU three years ago? The gig made famous by living legend/five-time national champ/seven-time SEC tournament champ/greatest motivational speaker ever: Skip Bertman?

"The idea was so intimidating," the 51-year old said as he prepared to host this weekend's Baton Rouge Super Regional against Rice. "You don't follow Bear Bryant or Dean Smith. But maybe because I've known Skip so long, it wasn't as intimidating as it would have been for someone else."

Then he paused and laughed. "At least that's what I tell myself."

As Mainieri approaches the end of his third season on the bayou, he has overcome a so-so first season and a half with a second act that has become one of the most jaw-dropping stories in LSU's rich baseball lore. Since April 22, 2008, the Tigers have posted a record of 72-19 and have lost two straight games only one time.

"I have never lacked for self-confidence. That's something that I preach to our players, our staff and our fans. Skip believed in that as well. Self-confidence is what has allowed me to follow him."

Truth is Mainieri didn't directly follow Coach Skip.

That miserably unfair job fell to longtime Tiger assistant Smoke Laval, who lasted five years, during which LSU made two oh-fer appearances at the College World Series. By 2006, the slow erosion of the program became exposed when the Bayou Bengals failed to make the NCAA postseason for the first time since 1988.

"It was the hardest call I've ever had to make," Bertman, who remained on after his coaching days to serve as athletic director, recalled last June when asked about the decision to fire his longtime assistant. "But the people of Baton Rouge have come to expect a certain level of success. I needed someone who would restore their faith in the program."

In other words, what Skip Bertman needed was a younger Skip Bertman.

His first call was to Mainieri, who had managed to convert cold-weather Notre Dame into a baseball winner. The perpetually grinning Italian from Miami was a specialist in revitalizing dormant programs. He'd won as a coach at tiny St. Thomas University in Florida, won at the Air Force Academy and led the Irish to the 2002 College World Series, their first trip to Omaha in nearly 50 years.

[+] EnlargeSkip Bertman
AP Photo/Ted KirkLegendary LSU coach Skip Bertman led the Tigers to five national championships.

"I've known Paul since he was 10 years old," Bertman recalled. "His father, Demi Mainieri, is one of the greatest small college coaches there's ever been. He coached Miami-Dade North Community College when I was at Miami Beach High School and when I was an assistant at the University of Miami. He said his son needed some hitting help, so he brought him over to me. The kid was a sponge. He was born to coach this game."

Nearly 40 years later, he wanted the kid to coach his team. At first Mainieri declined, telling Bertman to call everyone else on his wish list and then call him back if he still wanted to talk. Ten days later he did. Paul and wife Karen, a New Orleans native, flew down to Baton Rouge and got the hard sell from Bertman.

That night, the Mainieris sat up in bed and talked until the sun came up. They talked about not wanting to leave South Bend, about the amazing facilities at LSU, about the pressures of the job and living in Skip's shadow.

The next morning he took the job.

In 2007, his first LSU squad barely finished above .500 (29-26-1), dropping six of its final eight games. The cupboard was more barren than he'd realized.

In 2008, the team got off to a brutally bad start, especially in SEC play. After a demoralizing series beatdown at the hands of eventual national runner-up Georgia, the fans on the delta were officially out of patience. It was the final season in Fenway-like Alex Box Stadium, and no one wanted to send The Box out with anything less than a super regional sendoff.

"Then, all of the sudden, the season was saved," says '08 co-captain Michael Hollander, now a third baseman in the Texas Rangers' organization. "We were down late at Tulane in late April when [shortstop] D.J. Lemahieu smoked a two-run homer to win the game. For the first time all year, really in a couple of years, we got the big hit when we needed it. From there on, we couldn't lose."

He's not exaggerating.

They won 25 of 26, including 23 straight, swept the SEC tournament, and earned their 14th CWS berth, which ended in heartbreaking fashion at the hands of North Carolina. Still, the battleship had finally been turned. And it has steamed its way all the way through 2009.

Heading into this weekend's Baton Rouge Super Regional, the Tigers are 49-16, the No. 3 national seed and are riding the emotional wave of their eighth SEC tournament championship. They are led by the core who joined forces with Hollander one year ago, including LeMahieu's team-leading .339 batting average and the one-two punch of Ryan Schimpf and Blake Dean, who have combined for 33 homers and nearly 300 total bases. Meanwhile, starting pitchers Anthony Ranaudo and Louis Coleman have provided a lethal Friday-Saturday punch, followed by freshman closer Matty Ott.

[+] EnlargeRyan Schimpf
AP Photo/Dave MartinRyan Schimpf leads LSU hitters with 18 home runs on the season.

"More importantly, the swagger is back on the field and in the stands," Mainieri said, pointing to an unparalleled home attendance of more than 9,500 per game. "Good thing. We're going to need all we can get this weekend against Rice. This is an Omaha matchup being played in Baton Rouge."

Suddenly, the always-laughing ball coach got very serious, shifting his attention to an Owl team seeking its eighth CWS appearance since '97. Rice is still smarting from a now-legendary comeback loss to LSU in last summer's CWS. In an elimination game, Rice led 5-2 in the bottom of the ninth with All-American closer Cole St. Clair on the mound. The Tigers came back and won, ending Rice's season by stabbing it in the heart. The win was exhilarating for Mainieri, but it made for a difficult postgame handshake. During a life built around the worship of legendary college coaches, Rice's Wayne Graham has always stood tall among his idols.

"It is quite a sight to look across the field and see one of the all-time greats in the dugout opposite your own. But I've been a head coach since I was 25 years old and I've long since moved past the days of being intimidated. It's an honor to match wits with a living legend, but you can't be intimidated by it."

Trust the man on that one. He knows of what he speaks.

Ryan McGee is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His new book, "THE ROAD TO OMAHA: Hits, Hopes and History at the College World Series," which chronicles the excitement and passion of the CWS, is now available.

Ryan McGee | email

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