It is not a good sign of the current state of things when LSU coach Paul Mainieri opens up our conversation by saying, "I really hope I’m wrong, but …"
These weekly conversations have mostly been unguided since we started having them a few weeks ago. I’ll dial Mainieri’s number, ask what’s on his mind, and typically he takes it from there.
But this week there was some unfortunate news on the college baseball front. Two universities, Furman and Bowling Green, announced they were discontinuing their college baseball programs. A third, Chicago State, was on the brink of doing the same before tabling the measure for a later vote. I figured Mainieri would have an opinion on this.
College baseball is certainly not the only sport that is feeling the ill effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic crunch. Furman also cut its men’s lacrosse program. Akron dropped three sports (men’s cross country and golf, women’s tennis), Central Michigan cut its men’s track team and East Carolina cut its swimming and diving and tennis programs for both men and women.
But baseball, and specifically college baseball, has been a central aspect of Mainieri’s life the past 38 years. This hurts; this potentially will keep hurting in worse ways. He saw it coming, and he anticipates the worst is yet to come.
“Two months ago when this happened, I knew it was going to create a serious financial crunch,” Mainieri said. “I’m smart enough to understand this (coronavirus) thing is going to have far-reaching effects. It’s going to affect enrollments at colleges, it’s going to affect budgets at universities, it’s going to affect donor contributions, and so forth. Down the line, it could affect football season and that revenue production.
“My first thought was I wonder what this is going to do to college baseball across the country. College baseball can be an expensive sport to operate. It’s a fairly large roster with Title IX implications — you’re talking about 35 male student athletes. It costs some money, especially if you’re a northern school and you have to spend the first month or so on the road, taking trips down south where the weather is good enough to play.
“My concern was then, and now it’s proving to be a proper concern: Are universities going to say it’s not worth sponsoring a baseball program?”
In his 62 years, Mainieri truly has gotten the full college baseball experience.
He played the sport at city (UNO) and state (LSU) institutions, and he played junior-college ball (Miami-Dade North Community College).
He’s coached at tiny schools (St. Thomas) and mid-majors (Air Force Academy), he’s coached at a football-crazed school that didn’t care about baseball until he forced the issue with his team’s success (Notre Dame) and a football-crazed school that also happens to be berserk about its college baseball (LSU).
He understands the difficulty of it all. Many of those years were spent with only friends and family sitting in the stands, a far cry from the loaded bleachers at Alex Box Stadium. A significant portion of his career was spent coaching teams in cold-weather climates that couldn’t play home games for the first portion of the schedule.
So Mainieri has empathy for administrators and bean counters at institutions of higher learning, poring over the budget and trying to find ways to make it work and finding nothing but difficult conclusions. He can even bring himself to see how they can reach those conclusions.
But while seeing the connecting tissue between sports and finances, Mainieri can also see that the financial side of things can also be at odds with the greatest things sports have to offer.
His father is never far from his thoughts. In addition to being a baseball coach, Demie Mainieri also was an administrator. When thinking about programs being cut, Mainieri can still hear his father’s voice in his head: Athletics should be part of an educational mission of a school. To provide a sports program for gifted athletes is no different than a gifted chemistry student or biology student having a laboratory. This is all part of the development of the whole person, and it’s supposed to be part of the education.
Mainieri feels like he’s talking out both sides of his mouth. There’s the reality to contend with, about what high-level, revenue-producing sports have become in today’s day and age. The dollars and cents play a large role in amateur athletics, especially at the highest levels, and Mainieri knows this because he works at an institution that can pay him a salary that is competitive at the top of his profession.
He understands the budget constraints administrators are grappling with. These decisions could have direct impacts on big programs like LSU — the Tigers have Chicago State on their 2022 schedule. In the same breath, he’s concerned about the future of his sport.
“If there’s less teams out there playing, then youngsters in single-digit ages, maybe they direct their energies toward another sport instead of falling in love with baseball,” Mainieri said.
These are concerning times. These are times he figured were coming. He anticipates them getting worse. He hopes his gut is leading him astray.
“I would tell my friends I’m afraid there are going to be 100 college baseball programs discontinued because of this virus,” Mainieri said. “I hope I’m wrong, but I’m afraid we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg.”