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The Blessing And The Curse of Paul Mainieri

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The paradox of a universally successful failure

Syndication: Unknown SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network via Imagn Content Services, LLC

When it all comes down

There’ll be nothing to catch you but ground

It’s calling your name and filling your head

With delusions of glory

Paul Mainieri’s career is over. LSU has been eliminated in Knoxville after a magical Regional weekend made us believe that they could maybe turn their season around and make one more run to Omaha for the skipper.

But I don’t feel too bad about it. Let me explain.

The 2021 LSU baseball team was not a good team. They had talent, but couldn’t put it together and were literally - no, literally - hamstrung by injuries.

They limped into the SEC Tournament and were promptly eliminated on the first day. Following that miserable loss to Georgia, there were doubts if LSU would make the NCAA Tournament and if there were even deserving of it.

Ultimately, Paul Mainieri’s retirement announcement pretty much removed any doubt that the Tigers were going to get in. The Tigers went from being inside every last four in graphic to suspiciously missing from them on Memorial Day after the field was announced.

But the committee did LSU no favors and shipped them to the most far-flung corner of the country they could as the three seed in the Eugene Regional hosted by Oregon. Things started off pretty poorly against Gonzaga but LSU was able to empty out the jar of magic and win four games in three days to extend Mainieri’s career.

But magic can only go so far. At some point you have to take things into your own hands. Against Tennessee in the Super Regionals, LSU was simply outclassed. It’s painful to speak that bluntly about the way LSU’s season ended, but it’s true. The Tigers played Tennessee close in game one but ultimately made a simple mental error that Tennessee managed to go all weekend without making. On Sunday, Mainieri made a fatal error in not going to his best pitcher after it was apparent Landon Marceaux didn’t have it in him and the Volunteers bludgeoned LSU to death, not too different than what LSU would have done to Tennessee in a Super Regional from 2008-2017.

So no, I don’t feel bad about the way 2021 and Paul Mainieri’s career ended. It was actually kind of fitting. They played like the team they were all year and Mainieri made the same mistakes that plagued the back half of his career. I was glad we got to experience one more weekend of magic with Mainieri, but you can’t possibly feel bad or cheated about the way it ended.

You are who you are, and in the end there’s nothing you can do to hide that fact.

But there’s more here than meets the eye

The real story is under the surface

We’re all so in love with the artifice

We don’t dare look too close

Paul Mainieri is one of the greatest coaches in college baseball history.

He is a national champion with over 1,500 wins and a .657 winning percentage. He is among the top ten winningest coaches in LSU history and won over 600 games in Baton Rouge. He is the third winningest coach in SEC history.

The problem is that the man that’s #1 on the list is the man he spent his entire career in the shadow of. Paul Mainieri was absolutely successful and one of the greatest coaches in LSU athletics history. The problem was he wasn’t the most successful and THE greatest coach in LSU athletics history.

Everything that made the LSU program great was because of Skip Bertman. The fanbase engagement, the game atmosphere, the sellouts, the traditions, even the stadium itself is what is is because of Skip’s hard work and success, mostly the success. Paul Mainieri doesn’t even become coach at LSU without Skip. Mainieri mentioned as much in his retirement press conference. LSU is wildly lucky to have both of them as head coach in most of the fanbases’ life time.

Everything that makes the LSU program impossible to lead was because of Skip Bertman. Skip built a dynasty from the ground up, so the expectation is that every coach that follows him will have it much easier. But Skip didn’t just raise the status of LSU baseball, but college baseball as a whole. Mississippi State had always been in stride with LSU, but the ‘90s dynasty was an open invitation for other schools to raise their game, and raise their game they did. If you want any more proof of that, look at Tennessee this weekend.

In the same retirement press conference where Mainieri admitted that the only reason he came to LSU was because of Skip, he also admitted that all he ever wanted to do was make Skip proud. The pressure to succeed at LSU from the fans is more intense than it is anywhere else in the country, but it was compounded by the fact that Mainieri was also placing equal amounts of pressure on himself.

And that’s not going to change moving forward. In fact, the job likely just got harder because now in addition to having to stack up to Skip, you have to find a way a way to be better than Mainieiri.

And Mainieri was so good that there’s only one way to do that.

It’s a blessing and a curse

Watch out Eugene, don’t make things worse

Wild dreams come true, what to do then

Confusion and glory

Late into the 2008 season, it felt like LSU under Mainieri was going to be a repeat of the previous regime. They had just tied Georgia on Sunday to get the Gentleman’s Sweep and were in a tailspin.

And then...you know what happened then. Gold jerseys, 23-game win streak, the memorable last weekend in the Old Box in the Super Regional, and a trip to Omaha. That carried over into 2009, the opening of the New Box, and LSU putting it all together in Omaha with a deeply stacked team for the program’s sixth title.

After that moment, it felt like a second dynasty was inevitable. LSU had program momentum, the most state-of-the-art stadium in the country, and the backing from both fans and administration that only one or two programs could match.

They faltered with a young roster in 2010 and 2011, but were national seeds in the next six years. The SEC Tournament became the LSU Invitational. The Tigers went to Omaha three times and one year lost to the eventual national champions in a Super Regional.

But they never won another title. For all the dominance, they could never put it together enough to bring home title number seven. They got close, tantalizingly close in 2017 but the most ill-timed injury in LSU history combined with running into a buzzsaw against Florida meant LSU had to settle for a runner-up trophy.

You don’t think of LSU as a Bills-like franchise in anything but gymnastics (and the way we view Mainieri and Breaux differently speaks VOLUMES, but that’s an analysis for another day), but the past decade is testament to the fact that it’s hard to win a championship in baseball, impossibly hard. College baseball, in my mind, has the best postseason format of any sport because you need to be deep and competitive in all three phases of the game to win, and LSU more often than not was great at pitching but just didn’t have the depth they needed in the right years. Or maybe they had the pitching but not the hitting.

The body of work speaks for itself. On paper, if you remove the postseason results and just looked at the records and players LSU had, you’d think they had 2-3 titles in the Mainieri tenure. But it just didn’t work out like that.

From a fan expectation standpoint, it’s almost as if winning the 2009 title made things even harder for Mainieri. Okay cool, we won. Now go win four more so we can maybe argue if you’re as good as Skip was.

It’s okay to have criticism of Mainieri as a coach. I do too. I think his last game would have turned out differently had he managed the bullpen differently.

But don’t for a second pretend we weren’t lucky to have him lead the purple and gold. Because we were.

It’s a blessing and curse

I wish it didn’t hurt so much

I wish it didn’t hurt so much

I wish it didn’t hurt so much.