Tuesday, June 23, 2009

L.S.U.’s Coach Follows Father in Quest for Title

Published: June 21, 2009
OMAHA — While Louisiana State Coach Paul Mainieri supervised his team’s last workout before the College World Series finals, his father, Demie, handled another challenging task: organizing lunch for the extended family on Sunday at an Italian restaurant in the city’s Old Market district.

Three generations of Mainieris are here to watch the Tigers, the nation’s top-ranked team, play Texas in the best-of-three N.C.A.A. championship series at Rosenblatt Stadium. Demie, known as Doc, knows about title aspirations. He guided Miami-Dade Community College North to a national junior-college championship and later became the first junior-college coach to reach 1,000 victories.

“There’s no greater feeling than watching them and seeing him do so well,” he said, referring to his son in a telephone interview. “It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, to be honest with you. He has a great feel for people.”

Paul Mainieri said: “Having my dad here means everything to me. Growing up, all I wanted to be was a college baseball coach. My dad won a national championship in 1964, and I’d love for him to witness his son doing it.”

But never in Demie’s 30 seasons at Miami-Dade, coaching the future major leaguers Steve Carlton, Mickey Rivers, Mike Piazza and Bucky Dent, did he face the expectations of fans and boosters the way Paul does at L.S.U.

The Tigers won the last of their five national titles under Coach Skip Bertman in 2000, when a single game decided the championship. L.S.U. fans have been waiting impatiently for No. 6 ever since.

Bertman’s chosen successor, Smoke Laval, failed to deliver in five seasons and resigned in 2006 after the Tigers missed the N.C.A.A. tournament for the first time since 1988. L.S.U. has led Division I in attendance the last 14 seasons, and many Tigers fans book trips to Omaha well in advance, presuming the team will qualify — and win.

“At L.S.U., it’s Omaha or bust,” catcher Micah Gibbs said. “If you come here, and you don’t come back with a trophy, it’s hard to show your face.”

Into that pressure stepped Paul Mainieri, who left Notre Dame after 12 seasons. L.S.U. made it to Omaha last year in Mainieri’s second season, winning one game before being eliminated.

“When I was coaching,” Demie Mainieri said, “I was also the athletic director, so nobody was going to fire me. We had expectations, but nothing like this. They get 10,000 people a game.”

Of his son, Demie Mainieri said: “He was very secure at Notre Dame, but he said he always had an urge to coach at one of the best baseball programs in the country. He talked to Oklahoma, Mississippi State and Kentucky, but he said, ‘I want the best one.’ Then Skip hired him. He knew what he was getting into. He knows the expectations are there, and he’s not afraid of them.”

This year, L.S.U. took off after a bold move by Mainieri to improve the infield defense 40 games into the season. He inserted the freshman Austin Nola at shortstop, bumped D J LeMahieu to second and rearranged his outfielders.

Though L.S.U. has hit nine home runs and played errorless ball to win its three Series games handily, the Tigers (54-16) hardly expect it to be a breeze in the finals. Top-seeded Texas scrapped its way to Omaha for the first time since winning its sixth national title in 2005.

In the Austin Regional, the Longhorns (49-14-1) needed 25 innings to beat Boston College, 3-2, in the longest game in N.C.A.A. history. The next night, Texas trailed Army by four runs in the ninth before scoring eight times to win, 14-10, on Preston Clark’s game-ending grand slam.

At the College World Series, Texas defeated Southern Mississippi with a bases-loaded walk in the ninth, came from six runs down to beat Arizona State and eliminated the Sun Devils on Friday with ninth-inning homers by Cameron Rupp and Connor Rowe.

“The way we’ve been winning the last nine games, we’ve added a new assistant coach, David Copperfield,” said Texas Coach Augie Garrido, a reference to the illusionist. “Somebody asked me if we were going to practice. Practice? How do you practice the way we’ve been winning?”

Garrido, seeking his sixth national title and third with the Longhorns, will pitch Chance Ruffin (10-2, 3.27 earned run average) against L.S.U.’s ace, Louis Coleman (14-2, 2.68 E.R.A.) in Game 1 on Monday night. Garrido, like Mainieri, knows his team’s vociferous fans will be satisfied with only one result.

“In Texas, second place doesn’t get it,” he said. “Finishing second would be a disaster in a long line of disasters.”

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