HOOVER, Ala. — For seven years, each time Karen Mainieri opened her refrigerator door, the unopened bottle of champagne stared back.
“It was a constant reminder,” the wife of LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri said Tuesday.
A reminder of failure, frustration and losing.
Call Karen an optimist. She bought the champagne in 1995 before her husband’s first conference tournament as coach at Notre Dame. She anticipated a tournament victory.
“Of course that didn’t happen,” she said, “and it didn’t happen for the next seven years.”
Before Mainieri became the tournament guru he is today — his teams have won 10 of the past 11 league tournaments in which they’ve played — he lost seven straight.
Karen kept that bottle of bubbly in the fridge until Notre Dame won the Big East tournament in 2002. It came out of the fridge and got a makeover, too. Karen tied a balloon to it, wrapped it in ribbons and placed it on the couple’s front porch ahead of her husband’s arrival home from the tournament.
“I pull up to the house, and there was the bottle of champagne with the helium balloon attached to it,” Paul said. “I didn’t care what it tasted like — best champagne I’ve had in my life.”
And, thus, Mainieri’s conference tournament run began — an improbable, baffling streak that many can’t explain. Notre Dame won five straight Big East tournaments in Mainieri’s final five years, starting with 2002 and ending in 2006. LSU won the Southeastern Conference tournament in the first three years the Tigers qualified under the coach (2008-10), didn’t qualify in 2011, didn’t win in 2012 and won it the past two seasons.
“Finally,” Mainieri said, “we figured out how to win one, and it’s kind of become habitual. It’s kind of a nice habit to have.”
LSU has never been more of a favorite to win the league tournament than this season. The Tigers enter the SEC tournament opener against Auburn on Wednesday as the SEC regular-season champion and its No. 1 seed. LSU is 46-9, won nine of 10 SEC series, leads the league in ERA and batting average and is the consensus No. 1 team in all of the major college baseball polls.
Mainieri’s incomprehensible tournament run seems set to continue. How good is it?
As if 10 of a possible 11 tournament titles isn’t telling enough, there’s his record in those 11 tournaments: 38-7, including 22-4 with LSU.
LSU has won five of the past six SEC tournaments in which it has played. The recent success has some on the team dubbing the event the “LSU Invitational.”
“We win a lot of games there,” said sophomore pitcher Jared Poché, who’s scheduled to make the start in Wednesday’s opener. “For some reason, each and every year we play our best ball there.”
But why? What’s behind Mainieri’s tournament streak?
Players can’t really explain it, and neither can director of baseball operations Nolan Cain, who won two SEC tournaments as a player on the team in 2008 and ’09.
“It’s tough to put your finger on. I think every game throughout the year, the focus is on that game. We’re never looking ahead,” Cain said. “When we get to the tournament, we play one game at a time. We don’t even know who we’re playing the next day or what time we’re playing. It’s like, ‘Let’s go take care of business on the field, and we’ll figure out the rest tomorrow.’ ”
Mainieri suggested Monday that his teams’ success in tournaments is rooted in relaxation and happiness. Maybe he rubs off on his players.
If anyone would know what’s behind the success, it’d be the coach’s wife.
“He’s very happy this week. He loves this week. This is a great week for him,” Karen Mainieri said. “This is a happy week.”
It was sad for so long.
Three of those first seven tournament losses at Notre Dame came in the event’s championship game.
“I learned to really dislike losing (by) losing those first seven conference tournaments,” Paul Mainieri said. “It was very frustrating.”
The frustration ended with that champagne bottle — and a black Labrador puppy, too.
The coach excludes that part of the story. His wife doesn’t.
“The puppy was in a gift bag next to the champagne,” Karen said, “and his head was sticking out of the bag.”
Karen and kids thought that would be the ideal time to add a second dog to the household. Dad wouldn’t be too angry after finally snapping his tournament drought, right?
“He walked up and said, ‘I hope that dog isn’t ours,’ ” Karen said, laughing.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri has lost just one of the last 11 conference tournaments in which his teams have played. His teams are 38-7 in those tournaments.
With Notre Dame (Big East tournament)
With LSU (SEC tournament)
*Only year a Mainieri-coached team did not win a conference tournament that they participated in since 2002. LSU did not qualify for the event in 2007 and 2011.
Paul Mainieri’s Notre Dame team went 15-14 in conference tournaments in his first seven seasons with the Irish, losing each of those tournaments.
#Lost in championship game
&The Irish were part of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference in 1995 before moving to the Big East.
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter: @DellengerAdv.