Scooter Hobbs column: Mainieri’s second breath

Published 10:00 am Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Paul Mainieri already knew that dealing with college baseball could be a pain in the neck.

But the former LSU head coach couldn’t stay away, even now at 66 years old.

It doesn’t surprise me, really, that he’s getting back into head coaching with a gig at South Carolina.

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Good for him.

His LSU replacement, Jay Johnson, will certainly miss having him in Baton Rouge as Mainieri was nothing if not supportive of his successor and as big a fan as the program had during his three-year coaching hiatus.

But before the conspiracists take flight, his retirement following the 2021 season was sincere.

Half-hearted, maybe. Belatedly, well sure. But sincere nonetheless.

He wasn’t tired of coaching at the time. He loves it, breathes it, lives for it.

And he loved LSU as much as anybody who’s ever coached there, neck and neck with Ed Orgeron.

But a pesky pain in the neck just wouldn’t go away, with headaches to boot.

Both had been bugging him for a couple or three years but he fought through it, tried all sorts of medical treatments and a few home remedies.

Nothing seemed to help much.

So, regrettably, he gave up the job he was born to do.

He thought too much of the LSU program to coach it when not at the top of his game.

I have no formal training in orthopedics and even less in neurology, but the amateur diagnosis from here would be that the self-induced pressure of the LSU job might have been a contributing factor to those ailments.

If I was to fault Mainieri’s coaching style for one thing, it’s that he seemed to care too much about what the usual legion of second-guessers and nay-sayers in the fan base of a program like LSU said.

It shouldn’t be worth losing sleep over, but it did seem to bug him.

Anyway, guess what?

Mainieiri was here in Lake Charles last fall for a Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame function.

He was as happy as could be, loose and hobnobbing with fans, pleasantly surprised to see that a bunch of his former players showed up.

No pain in the neck. No headaches.

Coincidence or not, the aches and pains went away not long after he retired.

He was mostly playing golf, not only pain-free, he said, but he was playing the best golf of his life.

Who amongst you wouldn’t trade in a lot of bucket-list items for the best golf of your life at 66 years old?

But I wondered then, knowing how much he loved coaching and with improved health, if he might be tempted to give it another go.

You can’t imagine what, if anything, he would have left to prove.

He’s already in the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. The field at Division II St. Thomas University in Miami where his coaching career started, is named after him.

He won 1,505 career games.

Maybe it’s the Ghost of 2017 nagging at him.

Mainieri captured a rare triple crown with the Tigers in 2009 when he won the SEC regular-season championship, the conference tournament championship and the College World Series.

Even Skip Bertman never did that, although the conference tournament — as the SEC’s slogan goes — always seemed to mean more to Mainieri than most.

Bertman treated it as a tune-up to make sure he identified spare, seldom-used pitchers who might come in down the road.

But, after winning that national championship in his third year, Mainieri never again won the big prize.

He never said it — and he, believe me, he would tell you most anything, as delightfully openly honest of a coach as I’ve ever dealt with — but I think it haunts him to this day.

He desperately wanted at least a second CWS title before leaving LSU.

He came close. That 2017 season was his best chance when the Tigers made the championship round in Omaha but lost to Florida.

You can win a national championship with any SEC program.

South Carolina is about as good of a place as any. The Gamecocks have skins on the wall, from back-to-back national championships in 2010-11.

The coach of those teams, Ray Tanner, will be Mainieri’s athletic director.

There was a time when it was almost as demanding a job as LSU.

The job is open after the surprise firing of Mark Kingston, even though he and the Gamecocks made the NCAA Tournament this year.

But South Carolina also went two-and-out in the regional round and never made it to Omaha on Kingston’s seven-year watch.

It will be interesting with LSU scheduled to play the Gamecocks in Columbia next season.

But LSU fans should wish Mainieri good luck — and good health — in his pursuits.

Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at