LSU’s Mainieri makes fast work of rebuilding job

Published 4:20 am Sunday, June 21, 2009

(AP) — Two years after failing to even qualify for the Southeastern Conference postseason tournament, LSU is playing for a national championship in baseball again.

Paul Mainieri has rebuilt the Tigers in the image of Skip Bertman’s powerful teams of the 1990s, with dominant pitching and hitting carrying LSU into the best-of-three College World Series finals against No. 1 national seed Texas starting Monday.

“This team is as good as any LSU team in the 1990s,” Bertman said with emphasis Saturday.

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LSU has hit nine home runs and outscored the opposition 32-11 in winning its first three CWS games, and the Tigers are unbeaten in 13 going into the finals.

Yes, it’s like old times for the purple and gold in Omaha.

The 71-year-old Bertman, who remains a revered figure among the passionate LSU fan base, took over a mediocre program in 1984 and led it to the College World Series in his third year. He won the first of his five national titles in his eighth season.

Mainieri got the Tigers to the CWS in his second year and to the finals in his third.

“I don’t think it could have happened any faster than that,” Bertman said.

Mainieri, 51, has known Bertman all his life. As a 12-year-old, Mainieri took batting lessons from him, and Bertman was Mainieri’s coach at Christopher Columbus High in Miami.

Mainieri went on to play one season for the Tigers in 1976, married an LSU cheerleader and finished his college career at the University of New Orleans. He went into coaching after his playing days wrapped up in the Chicago White Sox organization.

Bertman watched from afar as Mainieri succeeded at each of his three stops before LSU. He was the winningest coach at St. Thomas University in Florida, the second-winningest coach at Air Force, and he led Notre Dame to an NCAA regional from 1999-2006 and to the CWS in 2002.

When Smoke Laval resigned after the 2006 season, Bertmen, then the LSU athletic director, knew who he had to hire.

“There was no doubt Paul would be a great fit,” Bertman said. “He always wanted to take my place, but he was locked into a long-term contract at Notre Dame.”

The Tiger Athletic Foundation ponied up $300,000 to pay a major chunk of the out clause in the Notre Dame contract. A portion of Mainieri’s $525,000 package at LSU also is paid by the foundation.

Charlie Weems, former member of the LSU Board of Supervisors and a current member of the athletic association’s board, said it’s been money well spent.

“When Smoke took over, the program gradually lost its personality. It wasn’t the same as when Skip was coach,” Weems said. “When Paul came, there was an immediate sense that the program was back in the hands of someone who knows what has to be done.”

Most of the fans were patient even though the 2007 team finished second to last in the SEC West and failed to win 30 games.

But there was hope. The Tigers won SEC series against four Top 25 teams while starting four freshmen everyday players. Those four freshmen — first-round pick Jared Mitchell, fifth-rounder Ryan Schimpf, 10th-round Blake Dean and 11th-rounder Sean Ochinko — are now stars.

“We weren’t winning too much that first year, but we were still coming together as a team and growing,” Dean said. “We were winning the big games like we should have. We had quite a few upsets my freshman year. The key was we worked so hard our freshman year.”

The rub, to some fans, was that Mainieri ran off several Louisiana natives and another player, J.T. Wise, who transferred to Oklahoma and became an All-Big 12 first team catcher.

“I didn’t feel the heat,” Mainieri said. “If people were talking about me, I didn’t pay attention. My confidence in myself and our staff never waned. I just knew we needed to improve.”

Grumbling among the Tiger faithful started again last year when, with four weeks left in the regular season, LSU was just 23-16-1 and fifth in the SEC West.

“We were sputtering along a little bit record-wise, but I thought the kids were playing good,” Mainieri said. “Once we learned how to get that big hit and showed that poise at the end of the games, we started to win and won 23 in a row.”

The SEC-record 23-game win streak led to a conference tournament championship and a return to the CWS for the first time since 2004. LSU went 1-2 in Omaha last year — “They ran out of steam,” Weems said — but was ranked No. 1 in major preseason polls this year.

The Tigers have slugged 103 home runs, the most among any CWS team, and have a pitching staff led by SEC pitcher of the year Louis Coleman and Anthony Ranaudo.

Bertman’s teams of the 1990s also were known for power — the ‘97 club hit an NCAA-record 188 homers — but the 2009 team might be more versatile. The Tigers can go deep, but they also are adept at situational hitting and sacrificing.

More important, Bertman said, is that the Tigers have Mainieri.

“He couldn’t miss,” Bertman said. “He’s the total package of leadership, community involvement, coaching, strategy, motivating, fund raising. He’s the best coach in America.”