Guiding force: Paul Mainieri’s investment in himself, LSU resulted in rebirth of a program that reached great heights once again

Former head coach Paul Mainieri was one of five former LSU athletes or coaches who were inducted into the 2023 La. Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday in Natchitoches. FILE PHOTO

(Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of former athletes and coaches with ties to LSU that will be inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in Natchitoches on July 29. Today: Paul Mainieri).

By GLENN GUILBEAU, Written for the LSWA

Paul Mainieri wanted the LSU baseball head coaching job in 2006 so badly, he paid for it – literally.

It is 17 years later, and LSU is still reaping the dividends of the Mainieri Era. That figures. Because if this coaching thing had not soon worked out for Mainieri as a 29-year-old St. Thomas University head man in 1987, he would have been selling stocks in a year. At least, that’s what he told his wife Karen.

Mainieri’s father Demie, a National College Baseball Hall of Fame member (2014) who won a national junior college championship at Miami-Dade North in 1964, told his son not to get into coaching if he wanted to get rich … financially.

And dad was right. Because Paul Mainieri was pushing 30 in the summer of 1987 and still living in his dad’s house in Miami with his wife and three kids while coaching Division II St. Thomas.

Mainieri interviewed for the head coaching job at then-USL after the 1987 season, but he lost out to Oklahoma assistant Mike Boulanger.

“I came home and told Karen, ‘If I don’t get a new job next year, I’ll get out of coaching and get a real job,’” Mainieri recalled, sitting at his ‘good luck restaurant’ before SEC home series – Roberto’s on River Road. “I had a book on how to sell stocks, and I set that book down on the table. Reluctantly, I would’ve done it. I mean, how long can you ask your wife to live with your parents and three small children?”

About another year, to be exact. The next summer, Mainieri’s career went airborne. He became the coach at the Air Force Academy, and he was off the hook.

“I was really good in math,” Mainieri said. “But fortunately, I never once opened that book.”

His career sure opened, though. After six seasons at Air Force, Notre Dame came calling. Through 12 seasons, Mainieri took the Irish to the NCAA postseason nine times, including the 2002 College World Series, which was Notre Dame’s first visit to Omaha since 1957. He won four Big East regular season titles. He was the coach of the best northern school in the country through most of his tenure.

Then he landed in 2006 at baseball mecca LSU, where in many ways it had all began in 1976 when he played for the Tigers and met Karen, a New Orleans area native.

Mainieri inherited a troubled program and few high quality players before the 2007 season, but he returned LSU to Omaha in just his second season in 2008. He won the national championship in 2009 and was inducted into the ABCA Hall of Fame in 2014 to complete the first-father son coaching duo in that hall of fame.

And now, Mainieri enters the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. The Class of 2023 Induction Celebration is July 27-29 in Natchitoches. Information and tickets are available at LaSportsHall.com or by calling 318-238-4255.

“When I got the phone call last summer, I surprised myself on how emotional it felt to me,” Mainieri said. “Especially when I heard about the other people who are in. I was just really moved.”

Mainieri retired after the 2021 season at LSU with the 2009 national championship, the 2017 runner-up finish and five trips to the College World Series (2008, ’09, ’13, ’15 and ’17). Under Mainieri, LSU was consistently a fixture at or near the top of the SEC, and the nation, year-in and year-out.

There were six straight top-eight national seeds from 2012-17 and nine overall under Mainieri. He took LSU to nine Super Regionals, including that last season in ’21 when Mainieri delivered one of his better coaching jobs. The team finished 13-17 in the SEC before rallying to get within two wins of Omaha.

LSU won four SEC regular season titles (2009, ’12, ’15, ’17) and six SEC Tournament crowns (2008, ’09, ’10, ’13, ’14 and ’17) under Mainieri.

“I love the state of Louisiana,” he said. “I was so proud to be the baseball coach at LSU for 15 years. I was proud of what we did accomplish. You always wish you did more. It’s just the nature of the business. I thought we restored the pride in the program within the community and won a (national) championship.”

Mainieri also left a national championship team for his successor. Second-year coach Jay Johnson won the 2023 national title with no less than eight players recruited and coached by Mainieri – center fielder Dylan Crews, shortstop Jordan Thompson, second baseman Gavin Dugas, first baseman Tre Morgan, designated hitter Cade Beloso, catchers Hayden Travinsky and Alex Milazzo, and pitcher Ty Floyd. Left fielder Josh Pearson, right fielder Brayden Jobert and pitchers Griffin Herring and Gavin Guidry did not play for Mainieri, but he and former recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain recruited them.

Oh, and Mainieri recommended Johnson to LSU athletic director Scott Woodward during the hiring process in 2021 in which Mainieri was very much involved.

Mainieri finished his LSU career as one of the highest paid college baseball coaches in the nation at over $1 million. But first, he had to pay to come to LSU after LSU athletic director and former five-time national champion coach Skip Bertman picked Mainieri.

Because Notre Dame decided not to waive his buyout following the 2006 season, Mainieri was responsible for the remaining three years of his deal to the tune of $446,000 within 30 days.

Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White ignored the fact that Mainieri had just turned down the Oklahoma job the previous year. And during his time at Notre Dame, Mainieri said no to another Big 12 job, three SEC head coaching jobs and a few others. 

“I met with my accountant, and he told me that basically I would have to work at LSU for five years to be at the same position financially I was at Notre Dame at the time,” Mainieri said. “That’s assuming I’d be successful at LSU. It was a risk.”

Mainieri did the math.

“I took out a loan for the $446,000 and wrote Notre Dame the check,” he said. “Coming to LSU was worth the risk.”

Mainly because Mainieri bet on Mainieri Stock, and that of LSU.

“I’d never been to a place where I didn’t have to convince people that baseball mattered,” Mainieri said. “Skip had already done all the groundwork for that. He had made baseball so relevant in Baton Rouge. And I kind of did that at Notre Dame to a lesser degree and had gone to Omaha. I wanted to test myself against the best. And LSU was really the only other school I wanted to coach.”

Mainieri struggled with talent limitations in his first season, finishing 29-26-1 and 12-17-1 in the SEC. LSU would never again win so few SEC games under Mainieri and would finish with less than 40 wins only three times.

In 2008, Mainieri’s Tigers won an SEC-record 23 straight that carried them to the Super Regional round. LSU advanced from there to the College World Series for the first time since 2004.

That set up the 2009 national title season.

“You made me into the man and player I am,” former LSU outfield Mikie Mahtook said when Mainieri retired in 2021. Mahtook’s RBI single in the 11th inning gave the Tigers a 7-6 win over Texas in the opener of the 2009 CWS championship series.

After a 5-1 loss to Texas in the second game, the Tigers took the title with an 11-4 victory as Mainieri outdueled coaching legend Augie Garrido, keeping Garrido tied with Bertman for national titles with five apiece.

Seven years later after the 2016 season, Mainieri would turn down an opportunity to replace Garrido at Texas and remained at LSU.

“I wouldn’t have been able to make my dreams come true without you guiding and pushing to get everything out of me through the three years I was blessed to play under you,” Mahtook told Mainieri.

Mahtook was one of 25 players coached by Mainieri at LSU to reach Major League Baseball. Seven opened the 2023 season on MLB rosters, including such stars as Alex Bregman with Houston and Aaron Nola with Philadelphia.

“He knew which guys he could get on and get the most out of and which guys he couldn’t,” Bregman said at the time Mainieri retired. “He got on me plenty of times. He knew the right way to do it, and everyone respected him for it.”

Mainieri once made Bregman go up to each fan at Alex Box Stadium – about 50 of them – during a fall intrasquad game in 2014 and apologize after cussing out an umpire.

“We talked for two hours in his office about holding myself up to a high standard because there were kids who look up to me and that I needed to change my language,” Bregman said.

“You made it possible for me to live out so many of my dreams,” LSU’s 2017 shortstop Kramer Robertson said to Mainieri when he retired. He also reached MLB.

“He kept believing in me when nobody else did,” Robertson said. “I would not be where I am without the ups and downs that he guided me through.”

Kramer’s mother is LSU women’s basketball national champion coach Kim Mulkey.

“Paul, you took a cocky little boy, and made him a man,” Mulkey said at her LSU introductory press conference in 2021. “I’m forever grateful.”

Ron Maestri, a 1995 inductee in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame for developing UNO into the state’s first (1984) College World Series program, coached Mainieri in 1978 and ’79 and saw what was happening early.

“A lot of guys looked up to Paul because of his character,” Maestri said. “When he came to the field, he was always prepared. You just knew he was going to coach.”

Mainieri’s younger brother John knew before that.

“We knew he’d follow dad,” he said. “That was his passion. Coaching was always in his blood. Paul was an incredible competitor his whole life. He’s my idol. Always was. I never beat him in anything, but he was a great big brother.”

Tom Crane, a teammate of Mainieri’s on the Columbus High football team, saw it coming since Mainieri won the starting quarterback job as a sophomore.

“Knowing what Paul thought of his dad and how he loved the game, you always knew he would coach,” Crane said. “Heroes are individuals who help carry your dreams until you’re capable of carrying them yourself. That’s Paul Mainieri. That was his dad.”

When Mainieri was 14 years old, he sat in the rocking chair in the bedroom of his mom Rosetta and dad Demie and told him his plan. He had briefly considered the priesthood, but he explained a different calling.

“I want to be a college baseball coach like you, Dad,” he said. “Pop, I’ve seen the way that you influence people. Young people, they hang on your every word. And I know that you have an impact on them well beyond the time they played for you. I want to do that, too.”

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