OMAHA, Neb . — The night before the championship series began at the 2009 College World Series, Paul Mainieri and a huge gathering of family and friends were having dinner at a downtown Omaha restaurant.
During the meal, a waitress brought over a bottle of wine. It was from Texas coach Augie Garrido, sitting at a nearby table with his family the night before his Longhorns took on Mainieri’s Tigers for the national title.
“So I sent a bottle of champagne over to him,” Mainieri said. “I wasn’t going to let him have the upper hand on me, right?”
When he walked out, Mainieri strolled past Garrido’s table.
“I said, ‘Hey, Augie, thanks for the bottle you sent over. But I’m going to wait to Wednesday night to open it up, though.’
“He laughed,” Mainieri recalled. “But that’s what we did.”
Wednesday was the last game of the championship series. LSU won 11-4.
“We celebrated with a lot of bottles that night,” he said.
It was the one time in Mainieri’s long and highly successful career that he said he felt totally fulfilled at the end of a season.
If this sounds like the tale of a hyper-competitive, driven man, that’s exactly right. That’s who Mainieri is, who he’s always been, and he makes no apologies for it.
He can make himself the point of self-deprecating humor. He likes to recall the story of telling Ron Maestri, his former coach at UNO, that he helped Mainieri set a “record” for consecutive times batting ninth in the order.
“I was the worst player on a really good team at UNO in 1979,” he said.
But Mainieri’s entire athletic career can be explained by that chivalrous exchange of bottles that night in Omaha.
He wasn’t going to let someone else have the upper hand.
In truth, Mainieri was a better athlete than he lets on.
He was the starting quarterback for Columbus High School in Miami his senior year, finishing among the city’s passing leaders despite working out of a run-oriented attack.
“When I was an athlete, I was undersized but very confident in myself,” Mainieri said. “I guess some people refer to that as a little man’s syndrome, but I had a chip on my shoulder. I always felt I had to prove myself. I didn’t take too kindly to not succeeding. That’s probably what drove me to doing some things as an athlete.”
He earned scholarships to LSU and UNO, with a stint in between playing for his father, Demie, at Miami-Dade North Community College. In 1979, the Chicago White Sox drafted him in the 32nd round.
But coaching quickly became his calling, starting with his first job in 1983 at St. Thomas University in South Florida.
“I was making $3,200 a year, we had two scholarships and a really bad field,” Mainieri said. “But I wasn’t going to let that deter me. I figured I would outwork somebody else and beat them, and if we didn’t, it bothered me.”
The field is a lot nicer now. Mainieri left St. Thomas in 1988 as its winningest coach at the time (179-121-2) for Air Force. In 2013, St. Thomas (where he also served three years as athletic director) named its new field Paul Demie Mainieri Field at Frank Esposito Stadium.
Demie is Paul’s middle name, a distinction Mainieri requested to share some of the honor with his father, who won more than 1,000 games in his career.
Winning at Air Force was difficult for Paul as he left with a 152-158 record, but his last team in 1994 led the nation in hitting with a stunning .360 average. He then headed to Notre Dame, where he stayed 12 seasons.
Mainieri’s impact on the Irish was profound. Eleven of his teams won 40 or more games.
They went to the NCAA tournament nine times, reaching the 2002 College World Series, Notre Dame’s first trip to Omaha since 1957. After he left in 2006, the Irish didn’t earn another NCAA bid until this season.
A devout Catholic, Mainieri loved Notre Dame. He still does. He said he had a half-dozen other coaching offers while in South Bend, four of them from Southeastern Conference schools, but insists LSU was the only one he would have left for.
In Tigertown, his career has only flourished. In addition to the 2009 title, this year marks his fourth trip to the CWS with LSU. All but two of his nine teams have reached the NCAA tournament. (Don’t wonder whether having his 36-20 team in 2011 left out of the tournament still irks him. It does.)
LSU was a No. 2 national seed this season, the only program to be a national seed the past four years. His Tigers are 53-10, the winningest team in Omaha and arguably the favorite, and have won more games the past four seasons (203) than any other program.
But a second national title has eluded him, which means he has gone the past five seasons without achieving his own standard.
Mainieri knows the rabid following LSU baseball has can bring with it withering criticism. He said it doesn’t bother him, though, because it’s not worse than the criticism he can direct at himself.
Failure is written into baseball’s DNA, which means even the best teams will lose. Mainieri has won 1,278 games in his career, but it’s the 651 losses that at times seem to be winning the internal struggle.
“I wish I could have gotten better at accepting losing over the years, but I’ve never gotten much better at it,” he said.
“I grew up the son of a man who was a fierce competitor, and he shared that same passion for succeeding that I did. I saw how he handled his losses, and he wasn’t much better at it than I was.”
So Mainieri returns to Omaha, trying to win the last game once again.
If he does, he’ll be buying the last round.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.