College Baseball Daily: You went 46-16-1, had a couple tough losses in the regional here at home. Every team is different, every team has its own motivation. How much does that loss last year motivate this year’s team and how much have they been working?
Paul Mainieri: Every team other than one loses not one but two games the last weekend of the season so every team’s season ends in a disappointing fashion except for one team. I guess experience is a great thing because it makes you understand to some degree that only one team is going to be terribly happy at the end of the year. What’s important is for perspective to rear its head and that means that if you feel like your team performed at a really high level for a good portion of the year and the program is healthy, kids are having fun playing in the program, they’re developing, you’re accomplishing things, you can’t judge your year, your season or the quality of your program off of one or two games at the end of the year.
For ten games and seven innings I bet we were playing as well as any team in the country. The last ten games of the season leading into the first championship game against Houston, we were playing a dominating fashion of baseball. We gave up four runs in four conference tournament games in the SEC tournament and won the tournament. We swept our last series of the year at Auburn to accomplish the things that we accomplished and we won the first two games of the regional and we were shutting out Houston for seven innings in the first game. Houston had scored run in 16 innings against us in the previous 16 innings and to their credit all of the sudden they scored four runs in one inning. Scratched across four runs. We lose an extra innings game and our entire season is changed. Of course the next night we didn’t play well at at, didn’t pitch well from the start and ended up losing the ballgame. Essentially the season was lost because of one bad inning in the eighth inning of the first championship game. I for one refuse to sit back and say it was a terrible year because we didn’t win the national championship or we didn’t get to Omaha or we didn’t get to Super Regional. I’m very proud of the kids and what we accomplished last year. Were we disappointed at the end? Absollutely. But we were equally disappointed two years ago when we went to Omaha and didn’t win the national championship. I’m disappointed every year if we didn’t win the last game of the year.
When I sit back and i look at it, and around here these are probably very little known facts, we’ve won 150 games over the last 50 games. That’s the most wins of any school in the country. We’re one of only two schools that has been a national seed the last three years, ourselves and Florida State. But around here I’m sure those are very little known facts because around here you’re measured by “Did you go to Omaha and did you win the national championship” That’s the way it is. I’m not going to fight that. I’m going to embrace that attitude. That’s what my goal is for my players and my team. That’s what our players’ goal is for our team. But I’m also not going to jump off the deep end and say, “Whoa, it was a terrible year.” You can’t put in the effort and the work and have the great experiences you had throughout the year and then throw them away because you had one bad inning.
I don’t think that losses at the end of the year provide motivation for us, I think the fact that we played well all year provides motivation for us. We take from that year a lot of confidence and a lot of buildup for this year. Hey, let’s take it a little bit further at the end. But this season doesn’t begin with us playing in the championship game of the regional tournament at home. We have to earn our way, we haven’t even qualified for the SEC tournament. We have to earn our way into the SEC tournament, we have to earn our way into the NCAA tournament, we have to earn our way into hosting a regional, we have to earn our way into a national seed. You just hope that when you get to that point, if you get to that point, when you do get to that point, that you play a little bit better to allow your team to win the game.
CBD: It’s easy to explain to me sitting here after the fact but how do you as a coach, when you’re in the moment, after you’ve lost those last two games, how long does it take for them to understand and process that whole situation that they really have had a great year and not to let two losses at the end of the year destroy or derail what they’ve done for three months leading up to it?
PM: You don’t want to make it easy for them to accept because the pain of the disappointment of it makes you want to feel like you don’t want to experience that the next year. They’ll better understand maybe that when they’re in the moment a year from then, how they need to try to take a better job of taking advantage of that moment. If you let them lose that feeling of the pain too much, then they won’t be on edge when they get to that moment again the next year. “Hey, remember when we’re at this moment.” That pain of that moment is not going to help us beat Kansas in the opening game of the year or beat Ole Miss in the first SEC game of the year. Where it will help us is when you get to that moment if you’re fortunate enough to be in the championship game of the regional the next year. I was asked these same questions after the 2012 season after we lost to Stony Brook in the final game of the Super Regional. How much motivation does that provide for the next year? Hey, I hope we’re in the championship game of the Super Regional next year. I hope we’re one game away from getting to Omaha. So now when we’re playing Oklahoma in 2013 and we win the first game, like we’d won the first game agains Stony Brook, now I can say to the players, “Hey fellas, last year we were in the same position as we are today. Do you remember the pain and hurt that we felt when we didn’t finish the job against Stony Brook? Do you want to feel that again or are you going to have your intensity and your confidence and execute in a way that now allows us to taste the fruits of victory and go on to Omaha?” Fortunately the next year when we were in that position we played a great game and beat Oklahoma and went to the World Series.
CBD: You lost a couple key players off the pitching staff, your Friday night guy and your closer. Who do you have in mind or who do you hope will step up and fill those roles for you?
PM: How do you replace the best pitcher in the world? That’s who we had. Aaron Nola was the SEC pitcher of the year for two straight years. I think we won 15 of his 16 starts last year which were all Friday night starts. I don’t know that you can replace that person. What i would hope that we have this year more than we had last year is more depth across the board. We had Nola and we had Joe Broussard who was our closer and those were really the only two consistent 90-plus mph arms that we had. We got a lot of mileage out of a lot of pitch ability guys last year which is a real credit to those pitchers and to our pitching coach Alan Dunn. We had a team ERA of 2.70 and we broke the school record and let the nation in shutouts with 17 and yet we only had two guys throwing in excess of 90 mph. That’s a remarkable accomplishment but it’s not something I really want to go through again. So we went out and recruited the number one ranked recruiting class in the country. I think it’s legitimate. We recruited seven pitchers, six of which who are guys who can throw the ball 90 mph or better with regularity. But they have to develop. Arm strength alone does not guarantee success. They have to do all the other things and they’re freshmen. There’s going to be a learning curve and it’s going to take them some time. But I think we have the right pitching coach to work with them and I think we have some great kids to work with.
We have one guy back from last year by the name of Jared Poche´that was a freshman on last year’s team and won nine games for us last year. I would think he has a chance of holding down a pretty significant role on our team once again. After that everything is wide open. I can’t even begin to tell you which of those freshmen would have the vital roles. Even after fall practice concludes on November 10th I don’t think I’ll have a rotation set because after fall practice we’ll come back together in the spring and we’ll see if those guys that performed in the fall can keep it going and then after our preseason, we begin on February 13 against Kansas and now they have to produce in the games if they want to maintain those roles.
It’s so wide open. Not only do we have seven new pitchers but we also have some guys back from injury. Russell Reynolds missed the whole season last year after pitching pretty well as a freshmen for half a season. Christian Pelaez missed the whole season last year with an injury. Hunter Newman missed a whole season last year and he had done some good things for us as a freshman kind of like Reynolds had done. Then the guys who did some good things for us last year like Parker Bugg and Alden Cartwright, Kyle Bouman, are these guys going to take another step forward and show that they’re even better than they were last year as first year players. We just have a lot of question marks about who is going to fit into what roles but I like the material that we have to work with.
CBD: How much more important it pitching now in the BBCOR era of the bat versus before?
PM: I think pitching has always been important. Whoever coined the phrase or believes that 90 percent of the game is pitching is underestimating the importance of pitching in my mind. I would say it’s higher than that. The pitcher is the great equalizer. You could have the best team in the world but if the pitcher shuts you down, an overall inferior team can beat a superior team. I’ve always thought that it was important. But I think in the old days you could build an offensive team that could overcome some pitching shortcomings by just out-hitting teams. I don’t think it’s possible nowadays to build an offensive team that’s good enough to overcome inadequate pitching. I think without a doubt you have to begin by building a dominant pitching staff. Pitching has always been important but in the new bat era, pitching has a chance to be dominant. So now your goal is to build a dominant pitching staff.
But defense goes along with pitching. If all you focus on is building a pitching staff but you don’t have players who can catch the ball behind you then your pitching staff is going to be neutralized. Those guys that catch the ball behind you also have to bat three or four times a game so you want to get the best possible player you can but you also know that your best chance to win is to be a dominant pitching staff and you’re capable of being dominant in this new bat era.
CBD: You’ve got a player Alex Bregman who was an All-American as a freshman. This year he spent some with the USA Baseball national team. How valuable was that for him and what do you think it will do for him going into this next season?
PM: Bregman has had a lot of experience with team USA. I think when he was on the 16 and under team he won the Dick Case award which went to the best Team USA player of any level. I think he played two years when he was in high school and then he played this year and after his freshman year as well. He’s played on four Team USA squads. He deserved to. I think he’s one of the best players in the country. He’s a wonderful young man. He’d rather play baseball than eat. He’s a baseball rat. He loves the game, he works extremely hard at it. he plays the game with great ability and great tenacity and now he’s got a lot of experience to add into the equation as well. I’m really hoping that Alex Bregman’s best year of his collegiate career will be this coming year which I think will be his last year of college baseball.
CBD: You’ve got beautiful facilities here, one of your conference rivals, Mississippi State is pouring a lot of money into their facilities. We’ve seen a lot of the arms race happening in football. How much of that is starting to leak into baseball and how is it affecting college baseball?
PM: I think it started a long time ago. Mississippi State is maybe just the latest one to invest into their facility but their facility wasn’t poor before. Arkansas for many years was clearly the best stadium in America and they are in our league. You see what we and South Carolina did. We both built our stadiums in the same year in 2009 and for the next three years, ourselves and South Carolina won the next three national championships. Texas A&M has renovated theirs, Ole Miss has renovated theirs, Vanderbilt has renovated theirs. You go right on through the whole SEC and you’re going to see amazing facilities. What happens is when a university is willing to invest in their facility, it sends a very strong message to recruits that baseball means an awful lot to our campus and that makes that campus attractive to a potential recruit. That’s just the reality of the way it is. Then if you have a facility and a team that warrants it, the fans start to come out and watch the games and therefore there’s revenue produced and maybe that program even becomes self sufficient. Like at LSU, not only are we self sufficient, we’re also putting a few million dollars into the athletic department coffers to help pay for other sports. That’s not a bad thing because what you’ve done is you’ve created an environment that allows young people to come and play and develop their talents because they’re given the tools to develop those talents in and then it gives them a wonderful experience. I wish every school in America valued their college baseball team the way that LSU and some of the other schools in the SEC do and would provide facilities and the other resources to their college baseball programs. I wish I made a billion dollars. I’d go out and endow every baseball program on every campus to give that opportunity to young people. I wish it wasn’t exclusive to this part of the country or this conference because I think it’s healthy for the sport, I think it’s a great thing for the sport. When I coached in the north whether it was at Air Force or at Notre Dame, I never wanted to do what was best for northern baseball, I wanted to do what was best for baseball. I used to tell my peers, my associates when we were in the north, “Let’s not drag the warm weather schools to us, let’s reach up and grab the level they’re at.” That’s what healthy for the sport of college baseball and if you love college baseball you want to do what’s best for the sports. I think it’s nothing but a positive thing that universities are investing in their college baseball programs. If it means the gap gets widened, then shame on the schools that aren’t feeling like college baseball isn’t worth the investment and those coaches need to go out and petition their athletic directors and presidents to put more resources into their program because it creates a better college baseball environment for everybody. But I don’t think for a second we should slow down the development of the game in certain parts of the country just because other parts of the country don’t want to make the investment. I never felt that was the case when I was representing a northern school.
CBD: How do you see the new proposals for cost of attendance and increasing the compensation that student athletes receive affecting college baseball?
PM: I honestly don’t know. I really just can’t envision how it’s all going to be interpreted or implemented. I don’t think anybody really knows exactly the way it’s going to be interpreted or applied. Obviously some sports or more popular than others but my concern is for college baseball. I’m not a proponent of college baseball being limited to 11.7 scholarships to begin with. I’d like to see resources being put more into college baseball to bring us to a scholarship level that’s more commensurate with the roster sizes that we have and that would be more fair to the athletes that are participating in our sport so that they get compensated in a way that’s more in tune with their commitment to what they’re doing. We have athletes that are very committed that work long hours and are just as dedicated to their sport as others are to their sport and yet they’re doing it for no scholarship or 25 percent of a scholarship. That’s just not right as far as I’m concerned.
CBD: Earlier this year you were inducted into the ABCA College Baseball Hall of Fame and your dad is already an inductee. How special was it for you and your dad as the only father-son duo in the Hall of Fame?
PM: Obviously it’s a great source of pride for us. I wish there were other fathers and sons in it as well. The fact that we’re the only ones certainly makes it special to my dad and I . I’m really honored and humbled that I was selected. There’s a lot of great coaches out there. Ray Tanner should be in the Hall of Fame, he should have been in it a long time ago. I could tell you 15 other names with out really having to think real hard about it. For me to have been selected is very humbling and flattering. I’m really happy that I was selected at a time when my father was alive and was able to attend and be there to celebrate the recognition together. I think the best thing for me on a personal basis was that it got to bring my dad more into the spotlight once again since he’s been out of coaching for 20-odd years. To hear everybody talk about him was something that was real flattering. Then shortly after that he was selected for the College Baseball Hall of Fame in Lubbock, Texas and who knows, maybe the fact that people were talking about he and I might have brought him back to people’s forefront of their thought and therefore he was selected for the College Baseball Hall of Fame which would be a great thing if that’s the reason.
Both he and I have been very proud of the fact that we’ve been able to be college baseball coaches. Not so much that we’re the fact that we’re in the Hall of Fame but that we’ve been able to impact young people’s lives and do something that we love doing which is being involved in the great game of college baseball but also to work with young people. My dad did it for 30 years and I’m now in my 33rd year of doing it. I just feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to do it for as long as I have. I hope the youngsters I’ve coached feel like the experience of playing on a team that was coached by me was an experience that they cherish for their careers.
CBD: You’ve had a lot of success at each of your stops, you’ve got the national championship here at LSU. What is your proudest accomplishment? I know for most of coaches it has nothing to do with stuff that happens on the field.
PM: Growing up the son of Demi Mainieri and knowing at a young age that I wanted to be a college baseball coach meant that I got to fulfill my life ambition and that is to be a college coach. Once my father knew I wanted to be a college coach, he not only was a tremendous father but he was also a tremendous mentor for me as far as the profession. The thing he told me, rule number one, there’s only one reason to go into coaching and that is to impact young people. He used to say that if you coached them the right way to become better baseball players, the lessons they will have learned on that baseball field will help them to be successes long after their careers are over in other walks of life.
Many years ago, probably in 1990, the first year I coached at the United States Air Force Academy was 1989 and I had a group of seven seniors on that team, wonderful young men that played for me for one year and then went off to pilot training to become fighter pilots for the U.S. Air Force. About a year after one of them graduated, he called me up on the phone one day and told me the story of what he had gone through the day before. He told me, “Coach, yesterday I woke up, I had my final check ride to become an F-16 pilot. I knew if I passed that check ride that I would fulfill my dream of becoming a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. If I failed that check ride I would not fulfill that dream. The pressure was unbelievable.” He said, “When I went to the locker room that day to put my flight suit on, I put an Air Force baseball t-shirt underneath my flight suit.” And he said, “The reason I did that was because it made me thing about all the things you taught us on the field about having self confidence and believing in yourself and having poise during the most pressure times of the game and the competitive zeal and all of those other lessons.” Having to pass that check ride that day for him was no different than batting with the bases loaded against BYU and the preparation that we gave to him to handle that situation as an athlete, he just translated that into the cockpit of an F-16. So when he told me that story, to me that meant I had fulfilled my destiny so to speak because all I ever wanted to do was know that I was helping young people be successful in life and by him telling me that story gave me the feeling that I had succeeded in my quest. So I’ve never forgotten that moment.
Now, we’ve had some amazing moments on the field, going to the College World Series with Notre Dame in 2002. One of the greatest experiences on the field that I’ve experienced, we didn’t even win. In 2000 when I took Notre Dame team to the regional in Starkville, MS, even though we lost the championship game, the if-necessary championship game, on a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning, that series of five games that our kids played in, I’ve never been more proud of a team because they laid it all on the line. They played with such passion and such heart that even though we came up a little bit short, I couldn’t have ever asked for any player or any team to give any more than they gave that weekend. I was as proud of that team as any team I’ve ever coached. Two years later we went to the College World Series, first time in 45 years that Notre Dame had been in the World Series, obviously beating Florida State in Tallahassee that year when they were number one was an amazing accomplishment. It’s a humbling game though because the shoe was on the other foot a decade later when Stony Brook beat us here at LSU.
Obviously taking four teams to the College World Series has been a thrill each time and of course wining it all in 2009, how do you top that? But I’ll never forget that moment when I got that phone call from that fighter pilot when he told me how much my influence on him helped him to become a fighter pilot. That’s probably the greatest moment I’ve experienced in coaching.
CBD: As a coach, as a mentor, you’ve got a pretty significant coaching career, what do you tell those guys when they come to you and say, “Hey coach, I want to be a coach.” What advice do you give them?
PM: The number one thing is the same advice that my dad gave me. It’s not about you. It’s all about the kids, it’s all about the players. Don’t go into coaching because of the prestige, don’t go into coaching because you think you’re going to make money, don’t go into coaching because you like winning or you love the game of baseball, go into it for one reason and one reason only, to impact young people’s lives. Let that be your guiding light. And it has been my guiding light at each stop along the way. At St. Thomas, then Air Force, then Notre Dame and now LSU. The pressure to win has increased with each step along the way, I can readily admit that. But my guiding light has never changed. I wanted to win just as badly at St. Thomas University as I want to here at LSU. Now the external pressures are a little bit greater, buy I can’t worry about that. All I can do is do the best I can.
The second bit of advice I tell them is you only have to answer to one person and that’s the person you look at in the mirror every day when you wake up. If you know you did your best then don’t worry about criticism and take the praise with a grain of salt as well. You only answer to yourself.
The third bit of advice I give to them is be yourself. Don’t try to be somebody you’re not. You may have coached with me but you’re not me. Your personality is different and even though you were a loyal assistant coach there may have been times along the way that you might have thought, “I’d do things differently than the old man did it.” And that’s okay, you still have to be loyal but when you become a head coach, apply the things that you believe in and be yourself.
I’ve had some amazing mentors. I told you about my father. I had a guy by the name of Ron Maestri who was the baseball coach at the University of New Orleans that I got to play for in college. Then when I became a coach, for the last 30 years I’ve had a mentor by the name of Tommy Lasorda that has guided me at every step along the way. I’ve taken something from everybody but I’m not any one of them exclusively because I take when I learn from each of them and apply my own personality and my own thoughts about things and that become who you are. So, that’s what I’ve tried to be and that’s what’s worked for me and I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for anybody else.