Commentary

Mainieri makes the right moves for LSU

Updated: August 6, 2009, 4:15 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- When LSU fired its baseball coach in 2006, Paul Mainieri had just finished his 12th season at Notre Dame, where he had turned the Fighting Irish into one of the sport's best programs.

Some of Mainieri's closest friends told him then-LSU athletic director Skip Bertman was going to call him about the job. Mainieri, who had played one season at LSU as an outfielder in 1976, didn't believe them.

[+] EnlargePaul Mainieri
AP Photo/Eric FrancisLSU coach Paul Mainieri celebrates after guiding the Tigers to their sixth national championship.

"I didn't think so," Mainieri said. "I thought it would take too much courage to have a coach from the North in a frying pan like LSU."

But Bertman needed a proven winner to rebuild the Tigers, who had fallen on hard times after he'd led them to a national championship in 2000.

After Bertman retired following the 2001 season, LSU returned to the College World Series in Omaha only twice during the next five seasons, losing both its games each time. In 2006, the Tigers missed the NCAA tournament altogether for the first time in 18 years, and coach Smoke Laval was fired.

At a place like LSU, where college baseball matters as much as every other sport (except football), a six-year drought without a national championship is far too long.

So Bertman turned to Mainieri, who had been a successful coach at remote places like St. Thomas University in Florida and the Air Force Academy before resurrecting Notre Dame.

"Paul was one of the best coaches in the country," Bertman said. "If he had been coaching at a warm-weather school like Texas, Florida or LSU, he would have won national championships."

Mainieri proved Bertman to be prophetic Wednesday night, as he guided the Tigers to an 11-4 rout of Texas in the deciding game of the College World Series championship series at Rosenblatt Stadium. LSU won its sixth national championship, which is tied with the Longhorns for second most in NCAA history, and improved to 6-0 when it reaches the CWS finals.

"I've dreamed my whole life of having this moment after a game to talk about a national championship," Mainieri said. "Now that it's here, it's almost surreal."

Mainieri wasn't kidding. He has been around college baseball his entire life.

His father, Demie Mainieri, was one of the most successful junior college baseball coaches in history, winning more than 1,000 games and a juco national title in 30 seasons at Miami-Dade North Community College. Paul Mainieri first met Bertman when he was only 9 years old. When Mainieri was playing at Columbus High School in Miami, Bertman often threw him batting practice.

He was trained his whole life to do this. His father was a great coach and his father raised him to be tough. I think he knew when he got to LSU that this was coming. He probably did it a lot sooner than most people thought.

-- Chicago Cubs GM Jim Hendry on LSU coach Paul Mainieri

After high school, Mainieri signed to play at LSU and spent one season in Baton Rouge. He met his future wife, Karen, an LSU cheerleader, but returned to Miami after only one season. Mainieri always wanted to play for his father and was with him during his final season at Miami-Dade North in 1977. Mainieri finished his playing career at the University of New Orleans in 1978 and '79.

"He always wanted to play for me," Demie Mainieri said. "I'm not saying it was the best thing for him, but it worked out for everyone."

Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, one of Paul Mainieri's closest friends, said Mainieri's father prepared him to coach at a place like LSU.

"I knew at a very young age that he was going to be great," Hendry said as he leaned against LSU's dugout and watched Mainieri and his players celebrate on the infield of Rosenblatt Stadium on Wednesday night. "I told him he was doing great at Notre Dame, but I knew he had another big one in him. He was trained his whole life to do this. His father was a great coach and his father raised him to be tough. I think he knew when he got to LSU that this was coming. He probably did it a lot sooner than most people thought."

Mainieri had to have thick skin to replace a legendary coach like Bertman, who won more than 1,200 games and five national championships in 18 seasons at LSU.

"I wasn't afraid of it," Mainieri said. "LSU is a wonderful place and it has great fans. My first three jobs, I had to convince people that college baseball is a wonderful sport. At LSU, I didn't have to waste my time with that. Skip had already done that. You can't expect us to have the great resources we have and not have great expectations. I knew what I was getting into."

Bertman, who worked as the Tigers' athletic director from 2001 to '08, said Mainieri never let the pressure of coaching at LSU affect him.

"He embraced all the pressure," Bertman said. "He embraced all the expectations. He said this is where he wanted to coach. There were no shortcuts. You've got to be crazy to try to change what was working here. Paul kept everything the same. If he changed something, he always made sure to come ask me. All the changes he made were great ones."

[+] EnlargeJared Mitchell
AP Photo/Ted KirkJared Mitchell's three-run home run got things started for LSU in its 11-4 win over Texas.

And during LSU's remarkable run to the SEC championship and the College World Series this season, Mainieri made all the right decisions. After the Tigers lost two of three games against Tennessee from April 17 through 19, Mainieri radically changed his lineup because he didn't like the way his team was playing defense. He moved sophomore DJ LeMahieu, a slick-fielding shortstop, to second base. Second baseman Ryan Schimpf moved to left field, and seldom-used freshman Austin Nola became the starting shortstop.

After the changes, the Tigers won 28 of their last 33 games. They had a 14-game winning streak end with their 5-1 loss to Texas on Tuesday night, which forced the winner-take-all game Wednesday night.

"I think Paul managed them about as astutely as you can," Bertman said. "I can't remember any mistakes."

Even with a national championship on the line, Mainieri changed his lineup again before Wednesday night's game. In the first two games of the championship series, the Longhorns pitched around designated hitter Blake Dean. Mainieri wanted to get more protection behind Dean, so he moved right fielder Jared Mitchell up a spot to No. 5 in the batting order. He put first baseman Sean Ochinko in the cleanup spot, after the junior didn't play at all Tuesday night.

With two outs in the first inning, Dean was hit by a pitch and Ochinko singled to left. Mitchell went to the plate and belted a three-run homer to give LSU a 3-0 lead.

"He's a magician," Mitchell said of his coach. "Every string he pulls seems to work. I don't know where he gets his premonitions."

Ochinko made his coach look smart, too, belting a solo homer in the ninth that sailed out of Rosenblatt Stadium. Ochinko went 4-for-5 with three RBIs.

"He told me before lunch he was putting me in the No. 4 spot," Ochinko said. "I told him I'd been waiting my whole life for this."

After LSU scored five runs in the sixth to take a 9-4 lead, Mainieri's biggest gamble of the season paid big dividends. Sophomore Chad Jones opened the season as a starting outfielder and was hitting .345 when he left to join LSU's spring football practice in early March. A star safety for the Tigers, Jones was told he no longer had a starting job when he returned to the baseball team.

But LSU's bullpen needed help, and Jones had been a pitcher at Southern Lab High School in Baton Rouge. Jones hadn't thrown off a mound in three years. He had a bullpen session three days before LSU played a three-game series against Auburn on April 24-26 and then pitched against the other Tigers in the third game. Jones became a spot reliever for LSU but hadn't pitched in any of the previous NCAA tournament games before the team arrived in Omaha.

[+] EnlargeLSU
AP Photo/Ted KirkThe Tigers' sixth title ties them for second place behind the team they beat in the CWS final, Texas.

When Mainieri handed Jones the baseball to protect LSU's five-run lead in the sixth inning Wednesday night, he had pitched a total of 1 1/3 innings in two CWS games. He promptly struck out Texas first baseman Brandon Belt and designated hitter Russell Moldenhauer with sweeping curveballs and didn't allow a hit in 1 2/3 innings.

"It was Coach's decision," Jones said. "I knew I could pitch. I was ready to go."

As Jones stood on the pitcher's mound littered with purple and gold confetti, he said helping LSU win a baseball national championship was more rewarding than helping the football team win the 2007 BCS national championship.

"This right here is one of the best things I've felt in my life," Jones said. "This is a better feeling than football because it's so many more games and it's such a hard sport."

It's a great feeling for LSU's fans, too. After Bertman left, the Tigers wondered whether their baseball program would ever be the same.

"Not many schools have come back after waiting so long," Bertman said. "Miami and Texas did it. I'm glad we're among those schools. We had a brief period where we came to the World Series but didn't perform well. To come back and win it, it's really special."

And it's just as special for Mainieri, who had waited most of his life for the moment.

"I took the job at LSU for one reason and one reason only -- I knew I'd regret if for the rest of my life if I didn't take it," Mainieri said. "I've always told my players to swing away. I'm glad I followed that advice."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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