Thursday Thoughts - Talking baseball, a charmed life and Tommy Lasorda with the stitched ball coach of the school that just won the football national championship

An interview with LSU's Paul Mainieri.

This guy isn't your run-of-the-mill college baseball coach. he's almost obscenely nice. And I mean more than just your regular "hi, how are ya'?" nice. When myself and Dr. Kenny Cook, a post-season baseball writer for CSTV, went up to his office on the day after LSU's football team won the national championship, it was hard to find a reason not to like this guy a lot.


Mainieri.Doherty.jpg
(Coach, I forgot to tell you that I had this picture I took of you in your Notre Dame days with All American reliever Ryan Doherty from a game against Southern Illinois in San Antonio, 2004.)

First of all, you'll notice how long this interview is, he's a great conversationalist. And then consider that he agreed to this interview despite it being a mere few hours after he was celebrating the football title in New Orleans. Knowing that Kenny and I only had a limited time in town before we had to fly back to our respective coasts, it was gracious of him to agree to it. He obviously didn't have to.

Then, after saying our hellos and casual greetings, the first indication that this guy is a different kind of coach is, he asked me and Kenny a string of questions about us before I even was able to ask him question one. He then made sure we were comfortable in his office chairs and started asking our beginnings with CSTV's baseball coverage and how we got to where we were in this college baseball world.

Subjects like his marrying his college sweetheart, going to the College World Series as a fan and the numerous pictures on his office wall of all the people that influenced his life took somewhere in the range of 15-20 minutes before I ever got to my list of questions. It was really cool to be honest with you. Tommy Lasorda. Skip Bertman. Fisher DeBerry. The Athletic Director of Notre Dame that hired him. Those are just a handful of the people he has pictured on his wall. Those are the pictures of people who helped him throughout his career. He says he keeps them up there to remind him of who gave him a chance.

There was never really a time when the actual interview started. We just kept shooting the bull and eventually got around to talking about my growing up in Omaha, which is a place he's hoping to visit again on a regular basis in his relatively new seat as LSU's coach.

Coach Mainieri:
Well, my best friend in the world is Jim Hendry, the former coach of Creighton.

Me:
Ohhhh!. That guy could've run for mayor after he led them to the College World Series in 1991.

Coach Mainieri:
Yeah. Yeah. I'm about two years younger than Jim and I played in the Cape Cod League when he was a young assistant coach up there at the time.

Dr. Kenny:
Which team did you play on?

Coach Mainieri:
I played for Wareham back in the summer of '78. Jim and I became great friends from that summer. Then when I started college at the University of New Orleans, Jim went back to Miami, where I was from, and was at my alma mater where he was an assistant. Well after college, I played a little bit of pro ball and then I went back and started helping him at the high school. I was there for three years, and then Jim left to become the assistant at Creighton. So naturally I thought I'd be elevated into the head coaching position, but they passed on me. (Laughs)

Me:
Those fools!.

Dr. Kenny:
(Laughing) Little did they know.

Coach Mainieri::
Well I was only 24 at the time, but I still felt ready. But because of that I got a small college job (St. Thomas, Florida, a Division II school) and it paid about three thousand dollars a year. And they really just hired me because nobody else wanted the job. But still, Jim and I remained the closest of friends. I mean, when he took Creighton to the College World Series, I was there in the front row. I had tears going down my cheek.

Me:
Man, I wish I could've been there for that. That place was going crazy all week.

Coach Mainieri:
Oh sure, it was incredible. But I had to leave after Creighton's first game to go on a recruiting trip to New Mexico. That 12-inning game with Wichita State, I watched from my hotel room. And that was the game Creighton brought in a pinch runner and tried to score him from second on a hit up the middle with one out, but the runner got thrown out at the plate on a perfect throw (from Jim Audley). Forty-five minutes after the game was over, I get a call in my hotel room, it's from Jim Hendry. He's asking me, "Do you think I did the right thing by sending that guy?" I told him, "Oh sure, you had to go for it." I didn't want to tell him what I really thought, which was "What are you doing sending that guy in a game like that?" (laughing)

Me:
That's awesome. I wanted to tell you that I actually saw your Notre Dame team play in the rain out at USC in 2003. That was probably the wettest game I'd ever seen.

Coach Mainieri:
Yeah, it started raining in the third inning and never stopped after that. And the thing was that the umpire, who was Jim Gilmore, the guy who worked the College World Series the year before when we were there, was working that game as well. He gets me and Mike Gillespie, who is an absolute class guy, together at home plate and tells us before the 7th inning that this was going to be the last inning because the conditions were getting worse and worse. Well we had a 3-1 lead, so I immediately yell down to get Ryan Doherty warming up (the 7-foot tall All American reliever). So we were able to pull that win out.

Me:
I'm guessing, as a northern school, it was important to get every win over a good team in the South or the West when you could. Especially early in the season.

Coach Mainieri:
Oh sure, as a northern school we were just excited to be outside. But to get a win like that , you've gotta take it. But that's not something I miss, I'll be honest with you.

Me:
I was going to ask you some Notre Dame questions later on, but while we're on the subject, go ahead. What was that like? Especially early in the season.

Coach Mainieri:
Well, I don't miss having our first day of playing outside being our first game. That's very difficult. And that happened a number of times in my years there. And I figured I did that for 18 years - six at Air Force, 12 at Notre Dame - so I feel like I paid my dues (laughs). It's time for me to have an advantage, you know?

Me:
Well that brings up an interesting thought, what is the difference from Notre Dame to LSU? What are your feelings on the common start date? Has it changed now that you're here?

Coach Mainieri:
Not really. And I'll be honest with you, I've always been the kind of guy that looks at the big picture and wants what's best for college baseball. I was raised in a family where my dad (baseball coach at Miami-Dade Community College for 30 years) really cared about the health and future of the sport. And I don't want that to come across as self-righteous because everybody's got their jobs to do. But I always thought, even coaching in Florida and when I was in my playing days down in the South (he played at LSU one year and transfered to New Orleans) that the schools in the North had such a disadvantage. You almost felt sorry for them. And then I became one of them and I REALLY felt sorry for them, you know? (Laughs)

Me:
(Laughing) Oh sure, right.

Coach Mainieri:
I always felt that our sport was a sport that was fragmented around the country, in terms of its emphasis. And I never liked that. I really didn't. I always liked it when the College World Series had Maine and Michigan and teams like that in it. But if you had one school starting to play its first game on January 15th and other schools not even THINKING about playing until the end of February, that makes it really difficult to have true credibility with people about the sport - from a statistic standpoint, a polls standpoint.

Me:
The word "credibility" is a word I've often used to associate with college baseball, because when I found out that baseball was the only sport that didn't have a common start date, I started to think that was a little bit weird. I don't want it to be viewed as a rogue sport with huge advantages to certain teams.

Coach Mainieri:
That's exactly what I'm saying. Put it in terms of football, if Nebraska was 4-0 but Miami hadn't even played yet... they would never tolerate something like that. For our sport to be thought of on the same level of basketball or football, there were going to be some things we would have to do to bring our sport in line.

Me:
Right (I agree by nodding, then I look over at Dr. Kenny, a stern fan of Southern baseball and he's biting his lip.)

Coach Mainieri:
So even though where I sit now you'd think I'd say 'Boy I wish I could stretch our season out'. But I think for the good of the game, it's probably the best thing.

Me:
Okay, but I still haven't asked you about the game last night. I assume you went, right?

Coach Mainieri:
Oh, of course.

Dr. Kenny:
Where did they have you sit? Or were you on the field?

Coach Mainieri:
No, I sat in the stands. I was over by the band where the LSU fans were sitting.

Me:
Oh, okay.

Dr. Kenny:
They didn't give you a suite?

Coach Mainieri:
No. No. I personally enjoy sitting in the stands. Because what happens is people are there to watch the football game, but I have a lot of people that want to come up and talk baseball. You know, they see you sitting in the stands and as soon as we won that game, there were people chanting to me, "You're next. You're next."

Me:
Well that was actually going to be question No. 1, do you feel any pressure? (laughing, knowing the answer).

Coach Mainieri:
Oh sure, now that they've won in football. From the day I took the job here I knew what the standard was. And I did a radio interview in New Orleans yesterday and they asked me the same question. And I said, "Some people are afraid of expectations. But I came here BECAUSE of the expectations. I embrace them. This is where I wanted to be because I knew how much the Tigers and their baseball team means to the school." You know, you can't have your cake and eat it too. You can't have, on one side of the ledger, the great facility, unparalleled fan support, unparalleled media coverage, a conference like the SEC, the weather... and then on the other side say, "Well don't expect much out of us." (laughs)

Me and Dr. Kenny:
(laughing) That makes perfect sense.

Coach Mainieri:
To me, that's speaking with a forked tongue. If you're going to have all those advantages, then you oughta have those high expectations too. I can assure you that nobody that follows the LSU program has higher expectations than I have. If we don't win the national championship in any given year, I'll be as disappointed as anybody. And that's the way it will be for as long as I'm a coach here.

Me:
Was the Notre Dame gig a place you wanted to end your career? Was it the place that you wanted to be your ultimate job and stay there for good?

Coach Mainieri:
At one point it may have become that. But I'm always dubious of coaches who say "this is my dream job" or "I'll never leave." And I promise you, in my 12 years there, I never said those words. I consciously avoided making those statements. I didn't grow up dreaming that I'd be the baseball coach at Notre Dame. I dreamt of being the QUARTERBACK for Notre Dame, but that didn't work out. Notre Dame was an unbelievable opportunity and I gave it everything I had. I loved everything about it. The people. The kids. The support. To be quite honest with you, I couldn't name three schools that I would've left Notre Dame to take. But LSU was one.

Me:
That's kind of something that Kenny and I were thinking about on the way over here today, were there any other schools you would've considered?

Coach Mainieri:
LSU was always THE school to me. I came here as a freshman. I met my wife here as a freshman. She was a cheerleader here, raised in Louisiana.

Me:
Beauty.

And then to add to that the love of the school. I knew Skip (Bertman) when he was a high school coach in Miami. So when I was 10 years old, Skip used to work with me on my hitting and our families were really close. So when he got the job here, I looked on with more than a passing interest. I was hoping he could build LSU into a good baseball school. So through those years when he was here at LSU did I think, in the back of my mind, that I could ever go to LSU as a successor to Skip? Yeah, I thought about that a bit. But you always take care of the job at hand, which was at Air Force at the time and then at Notre Dame. But I've never looked and said, "Boy, if I do a good job here, I could go someplace else." I never looked at life that way. I've always just wanted to do a good job where I was at. I guess that's why good opportunities have fallen into my lap. I mean, I haven't applied for a job since my days at St. Thomas.

Me:
So I guess there was no problem coming here and going through your first year with Skip - literally - looking over your shoulder.

Coach Mainieri:
No. I don't even look at it that way. I look at it as he's a great mentor and a great resource for me. I'm not threatened in any way by him. He wants to see me succeed. You know, maybe if I was a young, runny-nosed coach just starting out, maybe so. But I've been around the block a few times. This is my 26th year. I think if I wasn't as confident in myself it could be a little intimidating, but I only think in terms of how Skip can help us.

Me:
While we're on the subject of young coaches, one of Kenny and I's favorite college baseball stories is about Virginia's coach Brian O'Connor - your former assistant. We actually saw him pitch one time while he was at Creighton. He came in as a reliever against Southwest Missouri State, pitched a few innings, took his jersey off to show his Harley Davidson T-shirt he had on underneath, took an upside down bat and played it like a banjo on the bench.

Dr. Kenny:
Actually, it was the song "Dueling Banjos."

Me:
Oh yeah, that's right. (laughs)

Coach Mainieri:
Well, Brian is one of the special people in my life. (laughs) Emphasis on "special." I called Jim Hendry right after I got the Notre Dame job and said, "What do I do now?" He said, "I've got the perfect pitching coach for you." And it was Brian. Five minutes into meeting Brian, I knew he was the right guy for me. He was only 23 years old when I hired him to be my No. 1 assistant and yet it was the best professional move I'd ever made. And I don't know if two coaches could be more on the same page than Brian and I were. For nine years, we never argued about a single thing.

Me:
Well I think we both have been blown away at how well he's done there at Virginia.

Coach Mainieri:
I haven't been surprised at all, really. This kid had something special about him. I think the common bond there is that Brian came from Jim Hendry. And my dad, who influenced Jim. So we all thought alike. Our philosophy of the game is all similar. There was no learning curve for Brian. Jim coached him the same way my dad taught Jim to coach. So I was not real surprised at his success at Virginia.

Me:
One of the interesting things about your path is that you've gone from a cold-weather school to a sun belt school. What's the biggest change in your recruiting here as opposed to when you were at Notre Dame?

Coach Mainieri:
Philosophically, it's not changed at all. I'm still going to look for the certain kind of player that fits in and plays the game a certain way. The reality is that the pool of players is a lot bigger here. Coaching at Notre Dame was wonderful because of the kind of kids you had. But it was very restrictive environment too. You couldn't get a kid into Notre Dame unless he had a 3.8 GPA and scored a 1300 on his SAT. And I got very frustrated with that. I like the idea of finding young men that are good students, but need some guidance, inspiration and need a push to get a degree. At Notre Dame, you didn't have to push those kids. They were motivated already. So the doors here are wide open and there's a lot more players I can choose from.

.
[It was at this time in our interview that Coach Mainieri's secretary walks into his office and says, "Excuse me Coach, but Tommy Lasorda is on the phone for you." Coach asks if we mind if he takes the call... In baseball terms, that's tantamount to Coach Mainieri asking if we mind him taking a call from the pope. "Ummm... yeah coach, I think we'll just cool our heels, no problem."

After a few minutes - and a couple of mouthed "I'm sorry"'s from Coach Mainieri, he concludes his call and hangs up.]

.
Coach Mainieri:
I'm so sorry guys.

Me:
(laughing) Coach, I don't think you have to apologize for a call from Tommy Lasorda.

Kenny:
(laughing as well) Yeah, no problem.

Coach Mainieri:
He usually calls me on my cell phone, so I knew when he was calling me on my office phone it was something important.

Me:
So where did Tommy Lasorda come in? What has been his influence?

Coach Mainieri:
Tommy is the godfather to my youngest son.

Me:
Really? How did that come about?

Coach Mainieri:
Well I've been lucky enough to have three father figures in my life. My dad, obviously. Ron Maestri, the former coach at UNO and Lasorda. I met him a number of years ago and for whatever reason he took a liking to me and became a mentor of mine. He knew my father through one of his former players. And a couple years down the road, I was introduced to Tommy through my dad. And then Tommy started doing things to help me. I can't even begin to tell you all the unbelievable experiences I've had with him. Like dressing out in a Dodgers uniform and sitting on the bench with him. I mean, this was my education as a coach to sit down and watch him do his thing during a game.

Me:
Man, you can't beat that. Well one of the things I wanted to touch on was that time at Notre Dame when ESPN had you and Jeff Samardzija on during the 2006 NCAA selection show and Samadrzija was there wearing his Led Zeppelin t-shirt and all (Yes, Dr. Kenny laughed at that one). But one of the things you mentioned during that interview was how disappointed you were that Notre Dame was the only Big East team selected for the tournament and you thought Connecticut and St. John's should've gotten bids. Do you still feel that strongly about the Big East, or baseball in the North in general?

Coach Mainieri:
Well, obviously I don't want anybody to get a bid instead of us (laughs) or anybody from the SEC now.

Me:
Well yeah. (laughing)

Coach Mainieri:
I always said this about the Big East when I was at Notre Dame, the Big East is the most underrated conference in the country. I didn't grow up in the North, I grew up in the South, but I'm telling you it's good baseball! The players are good. The coaches are excellent. The fields stink and the weather stinks. You don't get a lot of people coming out to see you play. But that doesn't diminish the quality of the play or the players. I mean, this year we saw that three teams made the tournament (with Louisville making the College World Series). And obviously, they did it a little bit at the expense of the SEC, which only got five teams in. We hope we'll get back to seven or eight teams from the SEC.

Me:
So what were your feelings about some of the football players you'll have coming out in the spring. Was it tough to watch them out there getting in harm's way?

Coach Mainieri:
I used to get asked this a lot about Samardzija at Notre Dame. And as a wide receiver, he was the one taking the shots. I used to kid people and say that while there were 80,000 people yelling "Go Jeff! Go!" I was up there yelling "Go down, Jeff! Go down!" But when you look at a guy like Chad Jones, who is out there delivering the hits, it's hard to root for no contact. Unfortunately Jared didn't have a lot of catches this year. But I'm proud that we have two baseball players that were on the national championship football team. How can that do anything but help you? A- in notoriety. And B- Those kids have been under the microscope. They played on the biggest stage. So what is it going to be for them to step on the baseball field in front of 7,000 people?

Me:
Oh, we should also mention that we congratulate you on a great recruiting class too.

Dr. Kenny:
You guys were No. 1 in Collegiate Baseball, right?

Coach Mainieri:
Yes, No. 1 in Collegiate Baseball and No. 2 in Baseball America.

Me:
So you've got things turning in the right direction at least. Which, as LSU grads, we think is pretty cool.

Coach Mainieri:
Well we really felt like we needed that recruiting class just to have the same talent that other teams in the league have. This doesn't make us better than anybody in the league, it just gives us a chance. I mean 'coz last year, quite frankly, we just didn't measure up. We hit .250 as a team, we had the worst pitching and the worst hitting in the league. I still wonder how we won 29 games. We won two out of three at Arkansas and at Mississippi State. Won two out of three from Ole Miss and two out of three at Alabama. And frankly we shouldn't have. Somehow we just had some breaks and it worked out for us. But now I feel like we have the talent, that we don't have to take a back seat. I mean, it doesn't mean we're going to automatically win. It just means we have the talent to do so. We don't feel like we have to do it by swimming upstream.

Dr. Kenny:
In fact coach, I went to the first LSU football game this year at Mississippi State up in Starkville this past August and me and a friend of mine were checking out Dudy-Noble Field and we happened to see Ron Polk walking into his office. So we said hi to him and talked for a few minutes. And I confessed that I was an LSU grad and he was very complementary of you. In fact his exact words were "Mainieri's gonna have them back in Omaha in no time." So no pressure coach.

Coach Mainieri:
(laughing) Well, we're either going to get to Omaha or I won't be around very long.

Me:
Well we should go ahead and let you get back to your work. This was really cool of you to take the time. [We get up to start walking out].

Coach Mainieri:
Hey, did you get a chance to see the construction of the new stadium?

Me:
Welllllll... (laughing)

Dr. Kenny:
We kind of snuck in through a hole in the fence the other day to check it out.

Me:
It looks pretty nice. We saw the whole skeleton of the grandstand.

NewAlexBox.jpg
(A picture of the frame of the new Alex Box Stadium after sneaking onto the construction site)

Coach Mainieri:
Here are some of the drawings [Coach shows us a quick artist rendering]. It's going to have 18 luxury suites built in phase one and then another six more added in phase two.

Dr. Kenny:
How many is it going seat?

Coach Mainieri:
8,800 in phase one. And then another 1500 when they build the grass berms. So just over 10,000 eventually.

Me:
Well coach, I can't thank you enough for doing this the night after the national championship game. We really appreciate you meeting us like this.

Coach Mainieri:
No problem. Happy to meet with you.

With that we walked out... still in amazement that there was no front desk or secretary to check in with when we got there. But considering how open and welcoming Coach Mainieri was, it kind of stands to reason.


.
- Home of the Privateers---
While in New Orleans to cover the BCS title game, I made sure to check out the University of New Orleans' Maestri Field which sits right along the waterfront of Lake Ponchartrain and directly next to Lakefront Arena, where I saw U2 play on their Joshua Tree tour.

UNOfield.jpg
(Maestri Field at UNO)

It's a pretty good facility, considering their is a number of chair back seats and a good bit down each foul line. I took the above picture from the grass berm beyond the left field fence. Of course, as you might recall this field was not usable after Hurricane Katrina, so Tom Walter's squad was stationed at Las Cruces, New Mexico, using New Mexico State's facilities. Turning 180 degrees from the above picture, you see a huge FEMA trailer park that is still in use today.

FEMAtrailerPark.jpg
(FEMA trailer park just beyond Maestri Field)


As I mentioned during my in-studio work for CSTV last June, it's amazing the job that Coach Walter has done the last two seasons, with 30 and 38 wins respectively. UNO reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000 by winning the Sun Belt Conference last May. I know Pat Casey had another incredible season at Oregon State, Mike Fox led North Carolina to its second straight championship weekend in Omaha and Louisville coach Dan McDonnell brought the Big East back to the CWS. But there's no doubt in my mind who my 2007 Coach of the Year was, it was Coach Walter.


.
- Best stadium among the HBC?---
Also made it by Southern's Hines Field before I flew out of Baton Rouge and found the improvements they've made to be really nice. A couple of years ago, they built a nice grandstand with lots of shade and made great improvements in the playing field itself. The biggest thing was that they added lights to the facility, allowing for night games in SWAC play. I may be wrong, but I believe only Bethune-Cookman's Jackie Robinson Stadium may be better when it comes to Historically Black College facilities. I'm sure my good bud Ruffin Bell at BlackCollegeBaseball.com could correct me if I'm wrong. In the very least, it's the best on-campus facility.

HinesField.jpg
(Hines Field at Southern University... in winter obviously)


.
- Some bad news. And then some good news---
First the bad:
While in New Orleans for the BCS title game, I found out that CSTV won't be doing a TV show that covers the Southern California Media Day that is put on every year by Long Beach State. And that's unfortunate because the last two years, the boys in New York have sent a crew out to cover the event. Two years ago, Carter Blackburn and Kevin Stocker did a live 2-hour show that interviewed all 13 local coaches and a player from each team. Last year, myself and Tyler Hale interviewed coaches and players and then I went to New York to shoot a 30-minute show with host Adam Zucker.

Now the good:
Although the SoCal Media Day show is officially off, I was contacted by the peeps in New York about a national preview show they want to put together either at the end of this month or the beginning of February. And that's really cool, at least CSTV will have some kind of pre-season coverage, this time a more broader look. I'm good with that. Baseball doesn't find its way on TV often, so I'm proud to say I will be able to help give the sport some spotlight. I'll keep you posted on things.


.
- Just in case you want a good laugh---
Here's a link to the post-game wrap-up I did for CSTV after the BCS title game (it may now be on the second or third page of videos... and yes I realize I use the statement "all the way around" too many times):

http://www.cstv.com/video/

.
Okay, enough of my barnstorming tour of South Louisiana baseball when I was supposed to be reporting from the BCS title game. I'll have more baseball stuff within the month. Season's getting closer and closer peeps. Can't wait.

G'night.

Comments

Great stuff Eric like usual.

I loved his teams when he used to come up to my area of the country with Notre Dame.

Good article Eric as for the slight on Tulane's New Baseball Stadium it comes as no surprise that you would mention several other school's in the area; Yet conveniently leave out Tulane's New Stadium which is beautiful;After reading your article I see you are from the area. Your a pro. writer so give Tulane some credit. I've followed your stories for years and it seems you rarely mention Tulane!!!Except in a negative framwork.

In the words of Peter Griffin, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa..." Clyde, if you look at the Extra Innings entry from October (I was in Louisiana for the LSU-Florida game), you'll notice where I talk about Tulane and going by the wicked-good new Turchin Stadium. I even included a picture from the scrimmage they were playing, along with the write-up. So despite what you think, I'm the first one to start cheering "vars vars tee-yay, Tulane!" when they're doing well.

And of course, thanks for reading. Mighty cool of ya'.

E.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

 


Eric Sorenson Eric Sorenson
Eric Sorenson is CSTV.com's National Baseball Columnist, and also appears on CSTV as a baseball expert