LSU coach Paul Mainieri is living a dream.
Just a few years ago, Mainieri had an opportunity to leave a successful stint at Notre Dame for the coaching job of coaching jobs in college baseball. He had the opportunity to be the baseball coach at LSU.
Mainieri didn't hesitate to take the job. And though the Tigers didn't exactly experience a wealth of success in his first season, he remained confident in his ability to carry the Tigers back to their dominant ways.
Mainieri guided the Tigers to Omaha two seasons ago. But last season, he took a huge step forward and carried the program to their sixth national title with a thrilling title series win over Texas.
Still filled with excitement from his team's accomplishment a few months ago, Mainieri sat down with us to discuss a variety of issues, including his career, the best players he has seen and college baseball in general.
LSU's Paul Mainieri guided the Tigers to their sixth national title last season.
Q: It has been a special year for you and your LSU program. Looking back at last season, what was so special about the 2009 national champions?
A: Last year was just a dream from a coach's standpoint. Not just because we won the national title and won every championship along the way. The results certainly were great and all, but the kids were just wonderful to work with. Sometimes they even were magical. We had some talented players, pitched well and played good defense. But even more so, the caliber of people around this program was just outstanding. We had some great veterans and young players that were friends and played well together. Sharing the experience of last season with those players is something I'll never forget. No one can ever take that away.
Q: Outside of the final out against Texas in the College World Series, what was your favorite memory from the title run?
A: It really is amazing because winning the national title is the ultimate goal, but I'd have to say the greatest experience of all was the SEC tournament. We lost the opening game of the tourney and won five-consecutive games utilizing pitches and other players that weren't really vital guys throughout the season. They all rose to the occasion and rallied together and accomplished something many thought might be impossible. Seven of the eight teams at the tournament were ranked in the top 25. Winning five in a row in that situation sure was special. I'll always remember that.
Q: Last year's Tigers obviously would be one of these teams, but what other teams have you coached that will always stand out as some of your favorites?
A: There probably have been seven or eight teams in my 27 years of coaching that stood out to me because of their makeup. Outside of the '09 LSU team, I have to go back to my Notre Dame teams in 2001 and '02. The '01 team was probably better than the '02 team, but we didn't get to Omaha. The '02 team did. We had several great players on that team, including four-time All-American and current big leaguer Aaron Heilman. The '01 team was the No. 1 team in the country in late April, but unfortunately we had a couple bad breaks go against us in an NCAA regional at the end of the year. That right there taught me how hard it was to win in the postseason when that team couldn't even get out of a regional. Those two teams just had a real special magic about them.
Q: Who are the best player and pitcher you've coached in your lengthy career?
A: I'd have to say Aaron Heilman was the best pitcher. He was a four-time All-American and turned down $1.2 million to come back to school his senior year. He finished his senior season 15-0 with a 1.74 ERA. That was amazing. In terms of position players, I'd have to give the nod to Notre Dame outfielder Steve Stanley. He was small and still managed to have the third-most hits in college baseball history. Khalil Greene of Clemson played one more game in the '02 CWS to break a tie with Steve. He was a great hitter and just made things happen on the base paths. He brought such an intensity to the field and was an easy player to rally behind.
Q: Who are the best player and pitcher you've ever coached against?
A: Tino Martinez is the best player I've ever coached against. I was coaching at St. Thomas and he was a player at Tampa. There were some great games between the two programs. But I just remember Tino just being impossible to get out. We would lose a game 7-5 and he'd drive in all seven runs. That begs the question, though, why exactly did I pitch to him in the first place? In terms of pitchers, I vividly remember Nebraska's Joba Chamberlain mowing us down at Notre Dame in the Metrodome a few years ago. Also, I'll never forget a left-handed pitcher at Army by the name of Steve Reich. He pitched against us when I was at Air Force and in a seven-inning game he struck out 17 batters. We had four hits but he threw a shutout. He ended up pitching for Team USA, which was very unusual for a player from a service academy. He could've had a great career in the professional ranks, but chose to serve his country. I found out he died in a helicopter crash while serving earlier this decade. To this day, he's still one of the best pitchers I've ever coached against.
Q: It's obviously no secret that Virginia coach Brian O'Connor is a close friend of yours. As a friend, what do you think about Virginia as a program after finally getting over the hump with a trip to Omaha?
A: I'm just so proud of Brian and everything he has accomplished at Virginia. I remember when he was 23 years old. He's not only a great coach and person, he cares about the right things when it comes to a program. If you build a program with the proper foundation, it’s there to stay and it's not a flash in the pan. A program, in my opinion, must be built on the proper qualities. Brian has those. I think after getting to Omaha you're going to see them be a national player each season. I know he has had some great teams that didn’t fair so well in a regional like my '01 team at Notre Dame. People can say, “How can things like that happen?” That's college baseball. It just shows you that you have to be great at the right time. Also, you need to have a little luck to get to Omaha. That's kind of what happened to Brian and Virginia. They kept banging on the door and eventually you're going to get over the hump. His players tasted what it feels like to win the last game of a regional tournament. Now the sky is the limit.
Q: It's also no secret that you're very good friends with Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry. Would you ever consider moving to the pro game sometime down the road?
A: I have no interest in being part of professional baseball. I had a chance to play a little minor league baseball out of college. For some people that's the world they enjoy. For me, it's not. For me, I love being on a college campus. Even though college baseball has some parts that haven't evolved too well, I love that you can have such an influence on 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. You can help them take some lessons through the rest of their lives. On the other end of the spectrum, winning is the only thing in pro ball. I enjoy winning and think it's great, but I'm never going to break the rules and do it the wrong way. I enjoy the relationships I have with players, coaches and even our opponents. I want to have those experiences. College baseball gives me the best chance to have them.
Tommy Lasorda is one of many baseball icons Mainieri has enjoyed advice from.
Q: In your first campaign with LSU in '07, you went 29-26. In that campaign, was there ever a time when you wondered why you left Notre Dame?
A: There were a few moments throughout the season where I might've had that in mind, but the thing is I made the decision to come here for the right reasons and certainly was going to see it through. When I first got here we had a lot of work that needed to be done. It wasn't going to happen overnight, and we just had to fire away and have some confidence we'd get it all turned around. Even though that first year was a struggle, we had some moments and took care of business against four top-25 teams on the road. We also took a series from Mississippi State, which was in Omaha that year. There was a little bit of a taste of success, but we just didn't have enough firepower to maintain it on a consistent basis. Twenty players from that team returned in '08 and look at what happened. I always tell my teams that success doesn't come easy. It's not easy to win college baseball games with teams as committed as they are now.
Q: You're spoiled getting to coach at college baseball's premier atmosphere at Alex Box Stadium. What other stadiums are some of your favorites?
A: I can't say there's a specific place I really enjoy playing at. I really enjoy any ballpark where the school took pride in constructing it. It doesn't have to be a $30 million stadium, just a ballpark that the coach and school put a lot of love and passion into building the facility. I just like anywhere they really care about college baseball. I catch myself all the time standing at the top step of the dugout and looking around at everything in a ballpark. I just grin sometimes. Just so happy to see places where college baseball means so much to so many people. Sometimes it distracts me from actually coaching the game. I'm just captivated by places. It makes me happy and proud.
Q: If you could take away, change or add a rule to college baseball, what would it be?
A: I'd increase scholarships. I think it's ridiculous that we have 11.7 scholarships for a team with 35 players. There's not another NCAA sport that proportionally gets so few scholarships for the size of their teams. It's a labor of love to play baseball, but it also requires a huge time commitment and the players give a lot to the game. It's a struggle for a lot of families to finance their sons' college educations. It's really kind of sad to me to see these kids not get respect and the scholarship assistance they deserve. I say they take the scholarship total from 11.7 to 20 and let kids go to the schools they really want to enjoy, not just the school that gives them the higher scholarship amount.
Q: Who would you consider the most influential people in your life?
A: Outside of my dad and mother, there have been different times in my life where different people were very influential. It obviously was my parents growing up, and I had the great fortunate of playing for legendary coach Ron Maestri at New Orleans. He became like a second father to me. Then it was Tommy Lasorda who became like a third father to me. Lasorda gave me great advice and really has helped me throughout my coaching career. I have some tremendous friends out there like Jim Hendry, Randy Bush and other great friends from high school. I have a collage of pictures on my wall here in my office that reminds me of all the people that have influenced my life at some point. I've always believed that in order to show your ability and be successful at something someone had to give you an opportunity. So many people today think their success is all their own effort and destiny. There's maybe some truth to that, but someone had to give them an opportunity to succeed. I'm so grateful for everyone that has helped me.
Q: Where have you drawn inspiration from throughout your life?
A: When I was young, and I'm not sure why this was, I'd always look at my dad and see what a great leader he was to people. He was an athletics director and he always made me captivated by the concept of leadership. Therefore, in high school, I read a lot of books about different leaders. I idolized Vince Lombardi and also read books about General George Patton, General Dwight Eisenhower and other military leaders. I also always read a lot of books from leaders in other fields to understand how they got things done, too. I always liked reading about people that understand how to be successful.