On Friday, the LSU baseball team will report for its first full team practice of the spring season for the 11th time under coach Paul Mainieri.
For a brief moment in June, whether Mainieri would be there when that day arrived was a legitimate question.
Mainieri was one of several high-profile college baseball coaches whom the University of Texas pursued after it parted ways with Augie Garrido, the sport’s all-time winningest coach.
The Longhorns needed to replace an icon, so they set their sights on the biggest names in college baseball, Mainieri among them. Their representatives came to Baton Rouge and made their pitch in Mainieri’s home, and Mainieri listened.
It's hard to say exactly how close Mainieri came to ripping up the roots established over a decade in Baton Rouge to close his career in Austin. What is known is that he decided not to make that call — and why.
Mainieri opened up to The Advocate about his brief flirtation with Texas, giving his reasoning for staying put. There were many factors at play, but ultimately it boiled down to one thing: appreciation.
“I just wanted to know that I was wanted, because I never had any desire to leave,” he said. “This is home for me. This is where my four children are. My son’s still a student at LSU; he’s going to be going to LSU dental school in the fall. My other three children live here; they’ve met their spouses here.
“It’s home. I don’t want to go anywhere else. I want to finish my career here.”
'Why not listen to what they say ...?'
Mainieri wanted to make one thing abundantly clear when it came to his consideration of the Texas job: He repeatedly said it was not driven by a desire to leverage a better contract with LSU.
“I didn’t ask for the attention,” Mainieri said. “They were looking for a coach; I think a couple of coaches had turned them down. They turned their attention to me.”
Texas effectively fired Garrido on May 30, terming the move a reassignment and shifting Garrido to a position in the athletic department with a year remaining on his contract.
The Longhorns aggressively pursued the country's top college baseball minds. According to various reports, they considered Florida’s Kevin O’Sullivan, Louisville’s Dan McDonnell and TCU’s Jim Schlossnagle. By June 9, all three had agreed to stay at their current school — with new contracts.
McDonnell and O’Sullivan wound up agreeing to contract extensions that bumped each coach's salary to more than $1 million. Schlossnagle signed an extension believed to be in the neighborhood of $1.4 million; TCU, a private school, does not have to disclose salary figures.
So Texas turned to Mainieri. Four representatives from the school made their way to Baton Rouge and made their pitch to Mainieri. While they never officially offered him the job and did not submit specific terms, they made it clear he would be handsomely compensated to take over that program.
Mainieri said that, when contacted about the opening, he was “at a crossroads mentally.” When he left Notre Dame to come to LSU in 2007, he felt he was making the last coaching move of his career, as long as he won enough to retain the position. But that feeling was starting to wane.
He was coming off what many considered to be his best coaching job to date, taking an LSU team that was replacing eight of nine starters from a 54-win 2015 season and going 45-21 to claim a national seed and a super regional berth.
Mainieri’s 2009 team won the College World Series, and since, his teams have returned to Omaha, Nebraska, twice while averaging 47 wins per season. But Mainieri had not received a bump in salary since winning the championship, and other requests went unfulfilled.
The situation left him questioning how much his presence was desired at LSU.
“In some ways, you feel a little bit sometimes unappreciated,” he said. “And maybe, at some point, maybe you feel unwanted. So I thought, ‘Well, why not listen to what they say, and see truly what the people you’re working for think of you?’ ”
So Mainieri listened to Texas while those around him prepared to show him what they thought of him.
'I almost felt reborn'
Mainieri asked the Texas representatives if he could sleep on their conversation. Then, he got what he was hoping for.
When news started to trickle out that Mainieri was considering the Texas job, his players took their turn making pitches. Mainieri received phone calls from prominent players such as ace Alex Lange and slugger Greg Deichmann. He met with rising senior middle infielders Cole Freeman and Kramer Robertson.
Lange can’t remember where he first heard the rumors, but he felt compelled to call his coach. It was a call Mainieri described as “very emotional” in the days after.
“I remember sitting there and just thinking that, most of the time when a head coach leaves, he takes everybody with him,” Lange said. “It was more than just losing coach Mainieri. But that was a big part — the guy that recruited me and gave me an opportunity to play at the best place in college baseball was possibly moving on. I just had to call him and I told him how I felt, that the two years that I’ve been here have been the two best years of my life, and I didn’t want a new coach. I think that’s what everybody felt, too.”
That conversation, along with conversations he had with other players, struck a chord with Mainieri.
“I think it opened his eyes to hear that the guys still appreciated everything that he’s done for us,” Lange said.
LSU's administration also stepped up. Athletic director Joe Alleva visited the Mainieri family in their home and made it clear the coach was wanted at LSU.
They met in the late morning of June 16. Alleva had with him the structure of a new deal that would put Mainieri in the millionaire’s club, and he agreed to some other things on the coach’s wish list, including a video scouting department and new deals for his assistants. Later that day, LSU announced Mainieri would be staying put.
Alleva, out of town at a convention, could not be reached for comment, but Mainieri said a helpful dialogue was opened as a result of Texas’ pursuit.
“You want to know your players want you to be their coach, and you want to know the people you’re working for want you to be their coach,” Mainieri said. "I think that was a really positive thing that came out of that whole process. ...
“The other thing that happened in the process was a dialogue between Joe and I happened that I think was very productive for the baseball program here. I told him about things I felt that we really needed to continue to be on the cutting edge of success.”
Texas eventually lured another coach from Louisiana, hiring Tulane coach David Pierce to a six-year deal June 29.
In September, the terms of Mainieri’s new deal became public. He will make $1.125 million per year through the 2024 season, making him the second-highest-paid coach in the Southeastern Conference.
But beyond finances, Mainieri feels like he’s in a better place now than he did in June. He admitted maybe some of that feeling was possibly “something I had created in my own mind,” but it’s gone now.
He’ll be there when LSU is on the field for the first time as a team for the opening of practice Friday, and he’ll feel like a new man.
“When I went through that process this summer, I almost felt reborn in my job here,” he said. “I feel like I’m starting a new job, but I never had to move or change employers. I’m so rejuvenated and re-inspired to do well here. I want to make these next eight years better than the first 10 years.
“I want to go out with a flourish. I want to see our program go to new heights and every year be right there in the hunt for that national championship. I always felt that way, but just to feel that this is where I’m supposed to be, it really inspires you to want to reward the people that have the faith in you.”