His legacy was on the line.
Skip Bertman knew it. So did Paul Mainieri.
In fact, Mainieri told Bertman just that when the then-LSU athletic director first called him regarding the open head baseball coaching position in Baton Rouge.
This will be the LSU coach’s sixth trip to Omaha for the College World Series, five with LSU…
“I said, ‘Skip, you need to get this one right. Your legacy is kind of at stake here,’ ” Mainieri recalled.
Those five national championships and seven conference titles that Bertman won while transforming this program into the monster it is today were not at the forefront of everyone’s mind in the summer of 2006. Who would be LSU’s next head baseball coach was.
Bertman fired his longtime assistant and replacement Smoke Laval and began his second baseball coaching search in five years.
“I decided to make a change. I admitted my error — it didn’t work,” Bertman said. “It’s hard to come in after Skip Bertman. It’s hard.
“Now, I thought, I can’t miss with the next coach.”
Eleven years later, Bertman refers to Mainieri as his best hire and one of the greatest decisions he’s made in his career — coaching included. In fact, he believes Mainieri will win more games at LSU than he did, will win more overall championships and will draw more fans.
Bertman isn’t saying this as Mainieri’s old boss. He’s saying this as Mainieri’s friend. These two have developed a relationship over the years, one that began some 50 years ago, when Bertman would give hitting lessons to a 10-year-old Mainieri in the backyard hitting cage at his Miami home.
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The bond has developed into a father-son connection. The two still meet for lunch nearly every week. Bertman rarely misses a home game at Alex Box Stadium, just a 4-minute drive from his home at Tiger Bend.
Son has thrived in dad’s shadow. Mainieri has nearly matched Bertman’s winning percentage (.718 to .725) amid his imposing figure lurching over the LSU baseball program. He’s hauled in as many Southeastern Conference tournament titles as Bertman (six), doing it in seven fewer years. He’s on pace to equal or surpass Bertman’s SEC regular season championships (seven to four).
And he’s nearly at the halfway point of Bertman’s Omaha trips (11), booking a fifth College World Series spot in 11 years last weekend with a super regional win over Mississippi State.
“What he said to me when I hired him was, ‘I could never win all those national championships, but I really want to make you proud of me,’” Bertman said.
Answered Bertman: “In every way.”
This is the story of Paul and Skip or Skip and Paul: how the sport’s most herald icon hired one of the sport’s most consistent winners to lead a program he built after his first choice flopped.
Laval’s firing set up this whole dynamic.
“Smoke was different,” said Billy Guitreau, an Alex Box suite holder and longtime friend of Bertman who has supported LSU baseball for three decades.
Ben McDonald has done an awful lot with his 49 years.
“Smoke didn’t want to do anything Skip did. Did the opposite,” Guitreau continued. “He wanted it to be ‘Smoke!’ He didn’t realize that it’s not a Skip thing — it’s an LSU thing.”
Those close to the LSU baseball program, like Guitreau, say Mainieri’s acceptance of Bertman is why he’s been so successful. He invites Bertman to team functions, regularly visits with the old coach and touts him to players as the father of LSU baseball.
“He is in the shadow,” Bertman admits, “but the difference is, he embraces it. I walk into that locker room and I know every kid.”
That wasn’t the case in five years under Laval.
By Laval’s final season, tensions between he and the media and fans were high, Bertman said. The relationship between him and Bertman wasn’t much better.
“When he became the coach, I think he wanted to do it his way,” Bertman said. “While I respect that, don’t change the colors of the school.”
“Smoke is a very good baseball guy,” began Ronnie Rantz, a player on Bertman’s 1991 and 1993 championship teams and a baseball color analyst for 20 years, “but the LSU job and big-time baseball jobs, you have to be a CEO. Can’t just be an old school baseball guy. There’s two parts of the pie. Smoke had one.”
The search that ended with Mainieri, then Notre Dame’s head coach, started with Tim Corbin, then in his fourth season at Vanderbilt. Bertman admits that Corbin was his No. 1, and he even brought him to Baton Rouge for an interview.
Corbin’s contract at Vanderbilt — Bertman says it was a 10-year deal with a massive buyout — prevented his hiring. He turned to his former assistant Jim Wells, then at Alabama, bringing him into Baton Rouge for an interview.
“I won’t say he wasn’t interested. I’ll say he didn’t show as much interest as I would have liked,” the coach said.
Before all of this, former LSU catcher Mike Bianco, then in Year 6 as coach at Ole Miss, called Bertman with a message.
“He said, ‘Coach, I really love you, but don’t put me in this equation.’ He had heard his name being mentioned for the job,” Bertman said. “He blew himself out of the job.”
Mainieri accepted the position after a visit to Baton Rouge and despite a $300,000 buyout from Notre Dame. The Tiger Athletic Foundation and Mainieri split the buyout, Bertman said.
He took on the task of replacing the coach who had replaced the coach. Why?
“I wanted a new challenge, and I thought we could win national championships at LSU,” Mainieri said. “I really wanted to find out, if given the resources and being in the hotbed of college baseball, to see if I could really do it.
“I had that unfinished thing in my being,” he continued. “I knew what the flip side of that was — you could crash and burn and ruin your career.”
In his third year, he won a national championship.
Eight years later, he’s still chasing No. 2.
Mainieri doesn’t expect to equal Bertman’s five national titles. The parity in baseball is too strong for such a feat nowadays, even Bertman, the colossal legend who pioneered making college baseball profitable, admits that. However, Mainieri did set a goal for himself upon being hired here.
“In my own heart, I had a private goal that we could win three while I was here,” he said. “I didn’t come here with any illusions that I was going to be able to match Skip’s record.”
One down. Two more to go.
This is Mainieri’s own private chase of the man who hired him, the same man who admits his success in Baton Rouge has put “unrealistic” expectations on whoever the LSU baseball coach is — from now until eternity.
“Look at Bear Bryant,” Rantz said. “As great a coach as Nick Saban is, Bear Bryant is legend. He was the first, a long time ago. People grew up with the stories. It wasn’t the coverage and 18 bloggers then. There’s urban legend. A little of that is with Skip as well.
“Unless Paul goes and wins five or six (national titles), he’s never going to be considered lock step next to Skip,” Rantz continued. “That said, he’s a hall of fame coach. If Paul Mainieri were the head coach at Auburn, he’d have a statue already out there. At LSU, you are judged by national championships; fair or not, that’s how the public sees it.”
They each chase championships in a different ways and in a different era.
Skip was more relaxed and laid back. He coached the pitchers, called pitches and sent the offensive signals, taking full control of the game in his own hands. He wasn’t a gambler and made decisions based, sometimes, solely on percentages, Rantz said.
He was ahead of his time in motivational tactics and marketing skills, too, doing things a head coach doesn’t worry about these days — like making sure Alex Box’s bathrooms were clean and the nachos were hot.
Mainieri takes a more rigid approach, and he specializes in his infield, also calling offensive and defensive signals. His in-game coaching is more risky than that of Bertman. In fact, Bertman calls Mainieri a “really good” in-game coach.
“He changes pitchers well, hit-and-runs and steals really well,” he said. “I didn’t hit-and-run at the right time. I did it a different way.”
The relationship between the two men date back to the 1970s in south Florida.
“Both Miami boys,” Karen Mainieri, Paul's wife, laughs.
Bertman ran a powerhouse high school baseball program in Miami Beach, while Mainieri’s father, Demie, coached a powerhouse junior college program.
Demie used Bertman’s high school team as a feeder program for his own, and the two families became close.
“My family would go to Miami Beach and spend a day with the Bertmans or the Bertmans would come over to Miami and spend the day with us,” Mainieri said. “We had a batting cage in the backyard. I was out there hitting all the time. At least on one occasion when his family came over, Skip came out in the backyard with me and worked with me on my hitting.”
Mainieri says he doesn’t feel Bertman’s shadow. He’s in it. And he knows he’s in it. He’ll always be in it, and that’s OK, he says.
“When I’m not around, Skip talks positively about me and tries to help people understand how hard it is to win games,” Mainieri said. “I think winning the national championship my third year helped, gave me credibility with people. Although we haven’t won as many championships as Skip won, Skip is the first person to tell everybody that the rules of college baseball in place now, different than he was here, make it more challenging.”
Said Karen: "It was never Paul's goal to surpass Skip. He just wants Skip to be proud of him. He’s the man that changed Paul’s career.”
Bertman didn’t just hire Mainieri — he had a role last summer in keeping him around when the University of Texas showed interest in the coach. Bertman was the man who alerted LSU athletic director Joe Alleva to Texas’ interest.
“Paul called me and said, ‘Texas just called and they’ve offered a lot more money. And they’re on their way,’” Bertman said. “I called Joe Alleva. I said, ‘This is a heads up. Please call Paul Mainieri and ask him about this.’ I applaud Joe for that. He followed through.”
Mainieri got a $350,000 raise and a four-year contract extension. He’s working on a contract paying him $1.125 million per year that runs through the 2024 season. He hopes to retire as LSU’s head coach.
“I think Paul has earned his right,” Guitreau said. “He’ll go down as one of the best. If he doesn’t win another national championship, I think people will give him a lower grade, yeah, but I think he’s made his mark. He is LSU. There’ll be a statue of him here one day.”
SKIP VS. PAUL
SEC winning %
SEC tournament titles
*11th season not complete
SEC All-Time Winningest Coaches
- 1. Skip Bertman, LSU (1984-2001): .725
- 2. Paul Mainieri, LSU (2007-present): .718
- 3. Ray Tanner, South Carolina (1997-2012): .700
- 4. W.P. White, Georgia (1921-33): .687
- 5. Happy Campbell, Alabama (1935-42, 47-63): .682