How a bet Paul Mainieri made on himself 10 years ago continues to pay off
[su_dropcap style=”flat” size=”4″]T[/su_dropcap]here’s a certain amount of inherent risk that comes with changing jobs. It varies by field, of course, but there’s always some anxiety — typically rooted in our universal fear of failure — that accompanies attempting something new.
It’s ratcheted up more than a few notches when it comes to coaching big-time collegiate athletics, a pressure cooker of a profession where immediate results are expected and most hirings ultimately end in firings.
But few, if any, risk what Paul Mainieri did to come coach baseball at LSU.
“When the opportunity presented itself to come to LSU, a lot of the people at Notre Dame thought I was crazy,” Mainieri says. “I had a great career there and could have retired there. But the challenge for me was to find out how good I could be given the resources and the history and the tradition.
“I wanted to see if I could coach with the giants of the game and succeed at a high level. And I wanted to do it the right way.”
Professional pride wasn’t the only thing on the line. Mainieri quickly emerged as a leading candidate when Smoke Laval resigned following the 2006 season, but the coach had to pay a reported $450,000 buyout to get out of the three years remaining on his contract.
The Tiger Athletic Fund — operating through the school as an intermediate — raised funds to help defray the cost, but most of the payment came directly from Mainieri’s personal account. He took the job and moved to Baton Rouge knowing he’d have to survive four or five years just to be made whole.
“It was a huge gamble,” Mainieri says. “From a financial standpoint, it could have ruined me. But I had enough confidence in myself, and I knew there was still magic in the name of LSU, that it could be done.”
The wager he made on himself then continues paying out to this day.
Through nine fruitful years on the job, Mainieri’s 415 victories and .719 winning percentage rank second in program history behind only the legendary Skip Bertman. He’s led the Tigers to Omaha four times in the past eight years, won the SEC three times and captured the program’s sixth national title back in 2009.
Now, sitting in an office surrounded by mementoes of his success both on and away from the diamond, Mainieri prepares to close out his first decade in Tiger Town with an eye toward the next one.
“It seems like I just arrived yesterday,” Mainieri laughs. “I think that’s a good thing when it goes fast, because if you’re not having success and not winning a lot of games — whether it’s a year or a period of years — time goes slowly. We’ve had a lot of success. We’ve had a lot of fun. We’ve had some great kids and I have a fantastic staff. I’m hoping I can be here for another decade and it’ll be just as exciting.”
At age 58, Mainieri’s current contract extends through the end of the 2018 season. He and wife Karen have long since set down roots in Baton Rouge. Their four children are now grown and they welcomed a second grandchild to the family last spring.
Life is good. Mainieri says he’d be happy with his career body of work if he never coached another game, but the passion still burns for the son of Hall-of-Fame coach Demie Mainieri, who led Miami-Dade North Community College to 1,012 wins and a national title during his own 30-year career.
Coaching is in the bloodline. The junior Mainieri now enters his 34th year in the coaching ranks, a journey that’s spanned stops at St. Thomas and Air Force on the way to Notre Dame and eventually LSU.
His 1,279 career victories are tied for No. 24 on the all-time list, but Mainieri has no plans of sticking around for the sheer sake of compiling W’s to move up the ranks.
“I don’t think I’ll coach beyond the point where people want me,” Mainieri says. “I look at these coaches who coach well into their 70’s, and that’s not me. If I coach for six more years that’d be 40 years. That’s a long career in this profession. Fortunately I’ve had good health — and that’s something you never take for granted either — you take it one year at a time and do the very best you can.
“I coach my players to never look beyond the most immediate challenge and take it one game at a time. It’d be hypocritical of me to take for granted that I could coach another eight or nine years.”
Coming off his fourth National Coach of the Year honor and a second trip to Omaha in three years, a betting man wouldn’t wager against him.