One of the most honest, transparent and genuine-to-core college coaches announced his retirement Friday in a manner completely befitting who he is as a person.
In a 63-minute press conference sprinkled with tears, gratitude, apologies and nostalgia, Paul Mainieri made it official that he is stepping down after 15 seasons as LSU’s baseball coach.
A debilitating almost-three-year old neck condition, still painful after two surgeries, led the 63-year old Mainieri to make the decision to leave the sport that has been his entire life since being raised as the son of a 30-year Florida junior college coach.
“One of my greatest strengths (as a coach) has been to be very engaged with the players, you know, pitching batting practice, hitting fungos and just getting active with them,” said Mainieri, who’s hoping LSU gets an NCAA tournament bid when the tourney bracket is announced Monday. “I just haven’t been able to do that as much the last couple years.
“And consequently, I just don’t feel like I’ve been the same coach. I don’t think I’ve been a bad coach but I just don’t think that I’ve been the same coach. . . I just don’t feel like I’ve been carrying my weight.”
Mainieri said he had pondered retirement the last few months. On Thursday morning after talking with his wife Karen, he made the decision and then met with LSU athletics director Scott Woodward.
“I just told him that I just had not been feeling well, and I just thought that maybe the program would be better served if somebody else was leading it,” an emotional Mainieri said. “And let me tell you, it hurt to say that because I love coaching, and I love doing what I’m doing, it’s all I ever wanted to do, really.
“I was worried how Scott would react, but I can’t even begin to express to you how fantastic Scott was to me, the compassion that he showed.
“So, we agreed that I should step down.”
Before Mainieri told his team Friday morning, he drove to former LSU baseball coach and athletic director Skip Bertman’s house to tell him the news.
It was Bertman who hired Mainieri in 2007. And it was Bertman and his five national championships building an LSU dynasty from ashes who set a ridiculously high bar for Mainieri, who nevertheless accepted the challenge.
“I don’t know if we would have ever had the success that we had if Skip was not here with me every step of the way,” Mainieri said. “He was an unbelievable mentor for me. He was a great counsel for me. He did nothing but support me every step of the way and was my greatest advocate and ally I’ll be forever grateful for him not just for bringing me here to Baton Rouge.
“Skip is the father of modern LSU baseball. He’s the greatest of all time. Honestly, I just felt like I was the custodian of this baseball program. I never came here with the idea that I was going to ever be greatest than Skip Bertman. I did want to be the second-best coach in the history of LSU.”
Mainieri has a 1,501-774-8 (.659) career record that includes six seasons at St. Thomas (1983-88), six seasons at Air Force (1989-94), 12 seasons at Notre Dame (1995-2006) and 15 seasons at LSU (2007-21).
He’s No. 7 all-time among NCAA Division I baseball coaches in career wins, one of only five coaches in Division I history to win 1,500 games and has won 30 team championships, including the 2009 NCAA title, eight NCAA Regional championships, five College World Series appearances/NCAA Super Regional championships, four Southeastern Conference championships, six SEC Tournament titles and six SEC Western Division crowns.
Mainieri is the second-winningest coach in LSU history with a 637-282-3 (.693) behind Bertman and has the third-highest career winning percentage in SEC history.
Yet, many victory-hungry LSU fans felt Mainieri underachieved by winning just one national championship.
“We never won another national championship (besides 2009), and that was disappointing to me,” Mainieri said. “And I feel like we let down a lot of people by not doing that. But it certainly wasn’t because of lack of effort.
“It wasn’t because we didn’t have great teams. We were a national seed many years. We just couldn’t quite win that last game. Man, Skip made it look easy, but it’s hard to win national championships. I found that out the hard way, unfortunately.”
Bertman had a thinly-veiled message Friday for all of Mainieri’s detractors who constantly hammered him for not winning multiple national championships.
“Today, all the teams are that close and boy, it’s tough to win,” Bertman said. “Where is the dynasty guy? Where is he? Where is the team that keeps going on winning? Nobody’s done a better job than Paul’s done in 15 years, and that includes all staff, players, graduation, wins and losses and other things and taking care of his family and being a great beacon in the community.
“He did that. Can’t do it any better, I’m sorry.”
When Mainieri told his team Friday, he delivered the message with an apology.
“When we recruited the players here, it was my intention to see them all through their careers,” Mainieri said. “I have three years left on my contract. So, I didn’t want them to feel like I lied to them, and I apologized to them for that.
“It was not my intention to retire this year when I recruited them. I didn’t want them to lose respect for me, to think that I misled them in any way. I asked for their forgiveness for that.”
Mainieri also told his team that Woodward and the leadership of the athletic department were going to go out and find “the very best baseball coach in the country to come to LSU.”
Woodard declined Friday to answer questions about the search process to replace Mainieri, saying, “This day is about Paul.”
The most frequently mentioned possible replacements for Mainieri are Florida’s Kevin O’ Sullivan, East Carolina’s Cliff Godwin, TCU’s Jim Schlossnagle, Ole Miss’ Mike Bianco, Louisville’s Dan McDonnell and Tennessee’s Tony Vitello.
O’Sullivan is the only coach among that group who has won a national title, ironically in 2017 over Mainieri and LSU. O’Sullivan, Schloosnagle, McDonnell and Godwin have guided their teams to multiple College World Series appearances, Bianco, a former LSU catcher under Bertman, has one CWS appearance. Vitello, in his fourth season as a head coach, has none.
Mainieri, who said he and his wife just built a new house in St. Gabriel and don’t plan to move from the Baton Rouge area, said he’ll support whoever is the next LSU coach just like Bertman supported him.
As far as his retirement plans, Mainieri said he has some immediate ideas.
“I’ve got a bucket list,” Mainieri said. “I want to go to the Kentucky Derby. I want to watch the Masters. I want to go to the Indianapolis 500.
“You know what I want to do, really? I want to go visit former players. I want to see how the fruits of my labor have turned out. I want to see how successful they have become and see the families that we have raised and how they are doing with their lives.”