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LSU head coach Paul Mainieri (1) gets a hug from LSU infielder Jordan Thompson (13) after an NCAA Super Regional game at Lindsey Nelson Stadium Sunday June 13, 2021, in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee defeated LSU 15-6 to advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — As the final inning of Paul Mainieri’s career unfolded, he stood in the dugout and tears rolled underneath his sunglasses. His body heaved. He wiped his nose. 

Ever since he announced his retirement two weeks ago, Mainieri had tried to focus on his team and one more attempt at reaching the College World Series, but now LSU trailed 15-6 in Game 2 of the NCAA super regional, and Mainieri understood the end of his career would soon arrive.

“I was thinking about my father,” Mainieri said later, “Talking to him.”

For so many years, Mainieri shared baseball with his dad, Demie. He sat in the dugout at Miami Dade Community College wearing a jersey sewn by his mother. He followed his dad into the profession, never dreaming of doing anything else. He called Demie for advice after games until dementia set in during the final years of his life.

Watch video from Paul Mainieri's final postgame press conference below. Can't see the video? Click here.

What as Paul Mainieri thinking about during the 9th inning of his final game as LSU's baseball coach?

Since Demie died in 2019, Mainieri thought about him often. He visited his dad's gravesite two days after he announced his retirement to talk to him, but since then, Mainieri had enjoyed the postseason, rejuvenated by one more attempt to reach a national championship. He wondered if he would put on a uniform for the last time whenever LSU faced elimination. Until Sunday, he had avoided the end.

Before the game, Mainieri observed batting practice and pregame warmups as he typically did. He stuck his fingers through the netting behind home plate to shake hands with his son, Tommy, and his oldest grandson. For the next eight innings, he appeared focused on pitching changes and defensive alignments, trying to stop Tennessee from hitting another home run.

Then the ninth inning arrived. Comebacks can always happen until the final out of baseball game, but this one seemed unlikely with LSU nine runs behind. Mainieri wept. He thought about the man who started his career.

"Mostly," Mainieri said later, "I was just thinking about my dad."

His mind wandered also to his oldest son, Nick, and his family at the game. They had supported his career, moving around the country as he went from St. Thomas University to the Air Force Academy to Notre Dame and LSU. They were there when he won 1,505 games, reached six College World Series and led LSU to a national championship.

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When the game ended, Mainieri shook hands with the umpires and Tennessee's coaches. Pitching coach Alan Dunn wrapped an arm around him. Mainieri returned to the back of the dugout, where he sat down and the public address announcer recognized his career. Some Tennessee fans clapped. Others booed.

Mainieri stood up and walked to the edge of the dugout. Sophomore Cade Doughty hugged him. So did freshman Jordan Thompson. Mainieri conducted his final team meeting, hugged longtime sports information director Bill Franques and grabbed his bag.

Then Mainieri walked underneath the stadium for his last press conference. When asked what he thought about near the end, he began to cry again. He wiped his nosed. His body shuddered. Twenty-six seconds passed, and that's when he said he thought about his dad.

"Hey listen, I don’t want people to be sad for me," Mainieri said. "I’ve been the luckiest guy in the world. Thirty-nine years I have been, really. I got to live out a childhood dream. I got to do what I wanted to do for my entire life. Who could ask for more?

"These are not tears of being upset. These are tears of happiness and gratefulness. I got to do what I wanted to do. My dad got to live a long life and got to share it with me for most of the time. But I miss him. I miss talking to him."

Once he finished, Mainieri walked across the field toward LSU’s team bus waiting beyond the right field corner. His wife, his son and his grandson walked alongside him. Mainieri placed his hand on his wife's shoulder as they neared the bus, and when they got there, the team’s longtime driver, Willie Moses, wrapped his arms around Mainieri. Silence filled the air.

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Mainieri stepped onto the bus with his family and wiped his nose. His wife leaned against the window. They will stay in Baton Rouge, where they recently built a new house. Mainieri plans to attend the Kentucky Derby, the Masters and all the events a college baseball schedule prevented them from seeing. His wife hopes to travel. They want to see their friends, family and Mainieri’s former players, beginning a life no longer centered on college baseball.

“I think we’re looking forward to the next phase of our life,” Mainieri said. “I’m excited about what the future holds for us.”

Mainieri sat in the front row of the bus behind Moses. Before they pulled away, Moses wiped his face. Mainieri leaned over and patted his back, comforting him at the end.

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com