Notebook: LSU's Mainieri's Notre Dame roots still tug at his heart
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A midnight phone call Sunday night from good friend and Major League Baseball icon Tommy Lasorda almost coaxed Paul Mainieri to take in Tuesday’s Music City Bowl matchup in person.
Unable to find a last-minute flight from Baton Rouge, La., to Nashville to join the former L.A. Dodgers manager and uninspired about his ability to endure a nine-hour drive each way, the former Notre Dame baseball coach and current mentor of LSU’s national powerhouse program is resigned to take in the game from his office on the LSU campus.
“And please don’t ask me to make a prediction,” Maineiri said with a laugh of the football clash between the Irish (7-5) and 22nd-ranked LSU (8-4) in the 11th gridiron meeting between two schools that pull at his heartstrings.
It’s been 8½ years since Mainieri ended his 12-year run at Notre Dame that included 11 40-win seasons, nine conference titles and, in 2002, the school’s first appearance in the College World Series since 1957.
“You can’t be a part of Notre Dame for 12 years and have two of your children educated there and be exposed to the people you're exposed to there and not miss it,” Mainieri said Monday.
“When I was there, I totally immersed myself into the university and did anything that anybody asked of me inside and outside of coaching baseball. I loved the place and I always will.”
What helped him fall for LSU so fast and so hard after leaving the Irish was none other than Tigers head football coach Les Miles.
Miles was the first person Mainieri met when he arrived at LSU, and Miles’ generosity of being open to his players doubling up with baseball helped Mainieri’s run of success in Baton Rouge that counts 361 victories in eight years, College World Series appearance in 2008, 2009 and 2013, with LSU winning the national title in 2009.
On that team was Jared Mitchell, a wide receiver for Miles who ended up winning the Series’ Most Outstanding Player Award as an outfielder and who is currently playing professionally in the Chicago White Sox’s farm system.
Also doing double duty was LSU defensive back Chad Jones, who was a left-handed relief specialist in the 2009 CWS. Jones was drafted by the NFL’s New York Giants in 2010 and then by the Cincinnati Reds in the ninth round three years later after he had given up football.
“Unfortunately, the thing that some people gravitate toward when they think about Les is he has a rather unique grasp of the English language,” Mainieri said. “Or it’s that he does some quirky things like eating grass or whatever.
“Because of those things and because he followed maybe the greatest college football coach of all time, Nick Saban, in coming to LSU, Les has been very underappreciated by a lot of people.
“I personally think the guy is a tremendous football coach, great football coach. He’s a great recruiter. His players love him. They play hard for him. They win the big games. They play loose and confident in the biggest games. And he’s a wonderful person. I’m proud to call him my friend.”
Mainieri had strong relationships with the ND football coaches during his stay in South Bend, starting with Lou Holtz and finishing with Charlie Weis. During the Holtz, Tyrone Willingham and Weis regimes, those coaches were willing to partner with Mainieri in letting football players do double duty.
“Tyrone actually encouraged it,” Mainieri said. “He told me I should take a look at Jeff Samardzija, who he recruited as a wide receiver (and is now a pitcher with the Chicago Whit Sox). Bob Davie was the only coach I worked with who didn’t want his players involved in baseball, so we had a lull there.”
When Mainieri landed at LSU he went five years before agreeing to play the Irish in baseball in year six, figuring it would be too awkward to see them in the opposing dugout. When they finally did get together in March of 2012, the Irish sprung a 7-1 upset of the 11th-ranked host Tigers in what was supposed to be a two-game series.
Mainieri had Aaron Nola, a recent first-round draft choice of the Philadelphia Phillies and two-time SEC Pitcher of the Year, slated for game two. But that game was rained out.
“I never got the chance to get even with them,” he said with a laugh.
He will, though. The two teams are scheduled to meet in a two-game series in South Bend in May of 2016. The Irish will then open their 2018 season with a three-game series in Baton Rouge.
“I think it’s easier to play them now, because I didn’t recruit any of the players, I’m not close to their coaches, even some of the administrators have changed,” Mainieri said.
“But that doesn’t change the fact that leaving Notre Dame was the most difficult decision I had to make in my life.”
Mainieri, who was 50 at the time, said he had turned down job offers from three other SEC schools as well as some powers in the Big 12, and that LSU was the only job he would have considered leaving ND for.
“LSU, to me, represented the pinnacle of college baseball,” Mainieri said. “My first three jobs — St. Thomas University, the Air Force Academy and Notre Dame — I felt like it was a constant task to make people appreciate college baseball and understand that college baseball should be important.
“You come to LSU, you don’t really have to sell people on that. It’s already been done. We average 11,000 people a game. We outdraw every baseball team in the United States in average attendance per game except the Major Leagues.
“The highest average attendance in Triple-A is 9,600. So we matter to people. It’s such a big deal. What comes with that is obviously the pressure to win and the expectation to win championships. I’m sure (Notre Dame football coach) Brian Kelly knows exactly what I’m talking about.”
Brian Kelly can have a sense of humor about the question now.
If the verbal commitments of offensive lineman Jerry Tillery and defensive end Bo Wallace hold through early enrollment and national signing day, respectively, Notre Dame will break a recruiting drought in Louisiana that goes all the way back to defensive back Albert Poree in 1999.
And he transferred out of ND to Georgia Tech after a year in South Bend.
So when Kelly was asked if he enjoyed recruiting the state where LSU coach Les Miles dominates, he smiled.
“Yeah, if you can get in and find a school or a home that doesn’t have purple,” he said, referring to LSU’s color scheme.
“We would certainly love to. We do think there are some natural fits there. So certainly we believe it’s an area we want to continue to recruit, but it’s difficult certainly with the success that coach (Miles) has had to get a kid out of Louisiana.
“But he can’t take them all, so we hope to steal one once in a while.”
The imminent announcement of Jim Harbaugh as Michigan’s next head football coach will likely rock both Kelly’s and Miles’ worlds, though in different ways.
Kelly has a new geographical recruiting competitor, while Miles can finally put to bed speculation that he would end up as the Wolverines’ head coach.
“I’m very happy that Michigan has made a selection,” said Miles, a former Michigan assistant coach, “and a very quality coach. It’s just a matter of time before they return to prominence. And Go Blue!”
• Kelly said even with Malik Zaire being elevated to starting quarterback for Tuesday’s game, the sophomore would also remain ND’s No. 1 option to hold for place kicks.
• LP Field will be the fourth different active NFL stadium to play host to Notre Dame in 2014. The Irish are 3-0 in NFL stadiums this year, defeating Purdue (Sept. 13) at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, beating Syracuse (Sept. 27) at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., and downing Navy (Nov. 1) at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.