Paul Mainieri did not replace Skip Bertman, but he spent his entire LSU career trying to live up to the legacy of the greatest college baseball coach in history.
As Paul Mainieri commented in his farewell press conference, he wasn’t as good as Skip. No one is. All he wanted to do was make Skip proud.
Minutes later, after Paul patiently answered every question, Skip walked up to the podium and told Paul, and everyone watching, that he was proud of him. What better way to end your career? To spend 15 years grasping for the validation of your mentor, only to have him grant you that exact thing.
It was a tearful goodbye for the longtime coach, leaving the game because of chronic neck pain and his own admission that he couldn’t be the coach he once was. It was a brutal evaluation, and I would consider it unfair if it came from any other source, but it does put Mainieri’s comments over the years in perspective.
Mainieri has a not entirely undeserved reputation of publicly criticizing players. But what seemed to his critics as distancing himself from the blame, this press conference demonstrates that’s just who Paul was: a brutally honest evaluator. He always told you the truth, even to his own detriment. If someone messed up, he said so. And when he couldn’t live up to his own standards of performance, well, he said that, too.
This is a man who has over 1,500 career wins and a national title. That’s one of the best resumés in college baseball today, and he stood up on that podium and apologized for not winning more. I mean, the pressure this man worked under was simply unbelievable.
Yes, some of that pressure comes from an unreasonable and unruly fan base. Skip won five titles, so why can’t you? Even as Skip himself calls that a ridiculous standard which misses the point of Paul’s many accomplishments.
But it also came from the man himself. Paul Mainieri wanted to win. He cared about his players, and he wanted them to be role models to kids, get their degrees, and be the best people and players they could be. Those things were obviously important to him, and reflected in the caliber of people who have come through the program. But they play these games to win, and Mainieri knew it.
LSU baseball is the best job in the country. Nowhere else can offer this kind of fan support, national attention, and administrative resources. But all that comes with a cost. We care, and you have to win titles.
Baseball is not some tertiary sport at LSU, it is a premier, money-making program. Having 10,000 fans a game is great, and something no other program can match, but it also means you have 10,000 second guessers after every loss. To say nothing about internet jackholes like myself. This job is a pressure cooker.
Paul embraced that. He never shied away from the expectations or the attention. The day fans are second guessing you is the day no one cares, and that’s an even worse fate.
Mainieiri has got to be one of the most criticized and scrutinized Hall of Fame coaches in any sport. Every success was treated as a failure. This is a guy, who when his team closed out the old Box with a thrilling Super Regional win over UC-Irvine, had to remind reporters that his team played fundamentals, too.
The last few seasons have not been kind to LSU baseball. The program hasn’t lost its way, but it has seemed to be eternally snake bit. Pitchers keep getting hurt, freshman stars never quite developed, and the team kept finding ways to lose in the postseason in agonizing fashion. It was time.
But that is not the legacy of Paul Mainieri. He won the national title in 2009, and came up just shy in 2017, losing in the final series. His teams always seemed to play their best baseball in the last month of the season, often going on huge runs to secure a national seed or a host site.
Most importantly, his teams were fun. Mainieri’s teams embraced competitiveness, so much so that it’s almost weird to not see LSU rampaging through Hoover this weekend like they did seemingly every season. He gave us the Possum, the Bee Attack, and whatever the hell this was:
Mainieri never got his full due as the great coach that he is. He didn’t take over Skip Bertman’s LSU, he took over Smoke Laval’s LSU, a program that seemed teetering on the brink of collapse. Mainieri swooped in, brought in a tremendous recruiting class, and built LSU back into a national champion, which was no sure thing.
Mainieri won. He won a lot, and he did it with class. We never truly appreciated what we had, and now that he’s walking out that door, it’s time to tip the cap and say:
Thank you, Paul. You were one of the greats. In any sport.