There are political footballs. This weekend, LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri is juggling his own personal political baseball.
Notre Dame is in town for a three-game season opening series. A series Mainieri, of course, scheduled himself. Mainieri makes no pretense or excuses about his love for the University of Notre Dame, as he refers to it. He spent 12 years coaching there. His romance with the school started long before that.
On fall Saturdays, Mainieri would listen to Notre Dame football games on the radio. A Catholic boy growing up in Miami and playing quarterback at a Catholic boys school. On Sunday he’d watch the highlight show hosted by Lindsey Nelson and Paul Hornung. Years later, Hornung would call LSU football’s earliest TigerVision telecasts.
We move ahead to further action …
“That used to make me so mad,” Mainieri said. “Because I knew the plays I’d missed from listening the day before!”
The only place he would have left Notre Dame for. That’s what Mainieri has said many times about LSU. It’s home now. He dreamed of playing quarterback for the Fighting Irish as a kid, taping his cleats and wearing his wristbands and draping a towel over his belt like 1970s Irish quarterback Tom Clements did. But he played baseball at LSU, for a year at least, before going on to play for his dad at Miami-Dade North and at UNO.
“I’m glad I made the move,” from Notre Dame to LSU, Mainieri said. “It was a tough decision, perhaps the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make in my life. I’m glad I made this decision. My life has been so enriched by being the coach at LSU, the kids I’ve gotten to coach here and the success we’ve had. Coaching a team that matters to so many people and to a community the way our team does. I wouldn’t trade the experience I’ve had at LSU for anything.
“I look at Notre Dame as kind of being in the rear view mirror. It was a chapter of my life I’m really glad I had, but now my time is done there and now I’m the coach at LSU. One hundred percent of my loyalty is to our players, our staff, our university, our city, our state.”
It should not be a question for anyone. Somehow, though, Mainieri feels a need to give LSU a loyalty oath when it comes to that school.
Maybe it has something to do with your first love. The one you didn’t end up spending the defining part of your life with, but the one you never forgot.
The ties that bind Mainieri to Notre Dame go beyond how Tom Clements wore his wristbands. Two of his four children graduated from there. His oldest son, Nick, is back in town this week for the series, visiting the folks but also serving in his role as Notre Dame baseball’s academic advisor (he sat in the stands with mom Karen Mainieri, wearing neither blue nor purple nor gold). Considering their ages, from 34 to 23, the Mainieri children all spent many of their formative years in South Bend, Indiana, while Paul coached there from 1995-2006.
“Notre Dame did a hell of a lot more for me than I did for them,” Mainieri said.
That is worth debating.
In his 12 seasons there, Mainieri won 40 or more games 11 times. He won 50 games twice. He guided the 2002 Notre Dame team to the College World Series, its first trip to Omaha since 1957. Under Mainieri, the Fighting Irish made nine NCAA tournament appearances, including his last eight seasons. All this at a school where they don’t play in a college baseball palace and often don’t get to practice on grass before the season begins.
Yes, it’s true that Notre Dame plays baseball in the Atlantic Coast Conference now, a much more competitive conference than the Big East as in Mainieri’s day. But it’s also worth noting the Fighting Irish have been to only one NCAA tournament since he left for LSU.
The whole experience seemed not to sit well with Mainieri, one he was eager to get behind him. It didn’t please him any more that his Tigers needed a grand slam from Bryce Jordan and a three-run homer from Josh Smith to subdue the Irish 7-6 in Friday night’s opener. The Irish went 26-32 last season. Tougher tests await in the Southeastern Conference.
Look at it this way, though. After LSU got smoked by Notre Dame in men’s basketball in the Maui Invitational, and shocked by the Irish in the Citrus Bowl, at last LSU beat Notre Dame in something.
Paul Mainieri did that. And after this weekend, he can go back to not caring a fig about who LSU is playing, and rooting for the Irish to win like he does when they are not playing the Tigers.