LSU program on a roll under Mainieri
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A new season begins in just more than a month, but LSU coach Paul Mainieri and many of his players still are learning what it means to be a celebrity.
Well, sort of, if you ask Mainieri.
After winning the program’s sixth national title with a thrilling series win over Texas last June, Mainieri and many of his players have been the center of attention in the state of Louisiana. Even some in Florida and Mississippi entered celebratory mode when the Tigers won another national title.
Former LSU outfielder Jared Mitchell, who was a key member of the title team, received a key to his hometown of New Iberia, La., during a Sunday church service.
Former LSU pitcher Louis Coleman had a high school field named after him in his hometown of Schlater, Miss. Returning senior Blake Dean also earned recognition. He had a day named in his honor in Crestview, Fla. He also was given a prestigious award as the area’s top collegiate athlete for the year.
Then there’s Mainieri.
Instead of taking time off to spend time with his family and hit some vacation spots during the offseason, the all-of-a-sudden popular LSU coach was asked to participate in numerous fundraisers and parades as a Grand Marshal or chairman.
“I’d never agree that I’m a celebrity of any sort, but it is amazing how far-reaching a national title in this state can be,” Mainieri said. “There’s no Major League baseball in this state, so fans are just infatuated with LSU baseball. Lots of attention comes to this program and let’s just say the offseason has been a little busy.
I’ve carried that national title trophy around a lot. It has been a wonderful experience.”
It’s amazing to consider it wasn’t too long ago the Tigers and even Mainieri weren’t sure about the state of the program. Now, the Tigers are living the good life as the nation’s top team until someone attempts to knock them off next June.
The road to riches has been anything but easy for Mainieri. But it has been worth it.
It has been years since anyone actually could classify LSU as a bad program, but there were plenty of things that needed to be fixed when Mainieri took over for former coach Smoke Laval before the 2007 season.
Mainieri is obsessed with doing the littlest of things right both on the field and in the locker room. He even makes sure players’ lockers are organized. Laval wasn’t against organization, but certainly wasn’t as strict as Mainieri.
On the field, Mainieri noticed a few things in his first season, which ended with an unimpressive 29-26 record and no regional berth. It only was the second time in 19 seasons the Tigers failed to make a postseason appearance.
Instead of manufacturing some runs and playing as a team, certain individuals were determined to increase their home run totals at the expense of the team winning games. It was then that Mainieri realized the program needed a complete attitude overhaul.
“There was a need to learn how to win here,” Mainieri said. “Our coaching staff had to teach these kids how to win with things besides homers. We had to teach them that if you win enough games as a team, eventually you win championships. That attitude finally sunk in my second season here.”
Mainieri wasn’t the only member of the program that believed an attitude change was needed. Dean, who was a freshman when Mainieri took over in ’07, echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“I think the biggest key to the program getting on track was coach Mainieri coming in from Day 1 and establishing some discipline,” Dean said. “We had a lot of talent in this program, but everyone was so out of whack and undisciplined it was crazy. He came in and established a core foundation. That was the key to turning this thing around.”
In Mainieri’s second season with the program, he guided the Tigers to a 49-19 record, an SEC tournament title, a regional title, a thrilling super regional series win over UC Irvine and another College World Series appearance.
“I think the turnaround was a combination of a few things. The coaches did a good job and we had a lot of new guys his second year. The older players really set the stage to turn things around my freshman season,” said LSU pitcher Anthony Ranaudo, who is a junior entering the spring. “That season was the right combination of getting everyone on the same page, developing friendships and bonds and just gelling together. That is what it is all about.”
Mainieri and the Tigers took the ultimate step forward last season with a national title, reestablishing the idea that LSU baseball is back for good.
For the first time in a few years the Tigers seemed to make things look easier.
“The funny thing is that after winning the national title we had some fans that thought we made winning the title look really easy. We’d laugh and just say we didn’t think it was very easy when you look at how difficult the Texas series was for the national title,” Mainieri said. “We always say that the little things you can do as a program add up to make a big different in the end.”
It’s good the Tigers first heeded Mainieri’s advice in his second campaign.
Still fresh off another national title, the Tigers once again will enter the spring with high expectations. Some believe the Tigers will get back to the CWS. Others have even predicted the Tigers will win back-to-back national titles.
The Tigers definitely will have a tough time replacing Jared Mitchell, DJ LeMahieu, Ryan Schimpf, Louis Coleman and Sean Ochinko. But even with those departures, the Tigers still welcome back a strong nucleus of players, especially in leadership roles.
LSU received a huge boost last summer when slugger Blake Dean decided to return for his senior campaign. Mainieri called Dean his best recruit of the summer.
“I had a chance to come back and play again with the team with the program back in the limelight. I’d call my career perfect to this point,” Dean said. “The ideal situation for me would be to get one more national title before I leave.”
The Tigers also have a fantastic player in ace pitcher Anthony Ranaudo, the potential first pick of the MLB draft in 2010.
Ranaudo was one of the nation’s best pitchers last season, but was in the shadow of senior pitcher Louis Coleman for much of the campaign. With Coleman gone and the Tigers still having some question marks when it comes to the rotation, much of their success on the mound hinges on the fabulous right-hander having a huge campaign.
“I really relish the fact that everyone is leaning on me a bit. I like being a leader and taking control of things,” Ranaudo said. “I especially like showing guys the ropes and giving them a helping hand like Coleman did with me. The situation I’m in going into the spring definitely is a dream come true.
The Tigers expect to have another productive offense. The pitching staff has some uncertainty because of some unproven arms assuming more important roles. Meanwhile, a more hard-nosed attitude is something that LSU fans could learn to love this season.
“I thought last year was a bit more laid back with some older guys on the team,” Dean said. “This year, we have a lot more guys that are pretty feisty, keyed up and ready to show some fight and emotion.”
Just as LSU fans engulfed Mainieri and his players with joy and thanks last season, everyone, including Mainieri, realizes a new season is a completely clean slate. The Tigers expect to return to Omaha and anything less is considered a failure.
Each time Mainieri is asked if he’s ready to win another national title, he’s reminded of why he went to LSU in the first place. Sure, the Tigers have extremely high expectations. But Mainieri wouldn’t have it any other way.
Given another chance next offseason, Mainieri would love to once again be a Grand Marshal of a parade. Even if it means no vacation time.