Paul Mainieri: Explaining why Gamecocks’ target as baseball coach retired at LSU

Jun 26, 2017; Omaha, NE, USA; LSU Tigers head coach Paul Mainieri watches the military flyover during the National Anthem prior to the game agianst the Florida Gators in game one of the championship series of the 2017 College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha.

Former LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri is set to become South Carolina’s next coach, as first reported by Baseball America and confirmed by The State.

Mainieri’s expected hire is a splashy one for USC athletic director Ray Tanner, who fired former baseball coach Mark Kingston after seven seasons.

Just over three years ago, though, Mainieri announced his retirement from the sport after 15 seasons at LSU, citing health issues.

Mainieri is also 66 years old — the same age as his soon-to-be athletic director, Tanner, who hasn’t coached a South Carolina baseball game in 12 years — and has 39 seasons of collegiate coaching under his belt dating back to 1983.

So, what’s changed for the former Tigers skipper and 2009 national champion? Here’s what we know about Mainieri’s initial retirement, health and previous attempts to get back into the game since he retired after the 2021 season.

Why did Paul Mainieri retire?

The news of Mainieri’s retirement shook the college baseball world a little over three years ago. He was in his 15th season at LSU, one of the sport’s blue bloods, and his Tigers had experienced major success, including five College World Series trips, a CWS runner-up finish in 2017 and nine times as a top 8 national seed.

Mainieri announced his intent to retire after the 2021 season on May 28, 2021, three days after LSU suffered a disappointing first round SEC Tournament loss and three days before that year’s NCAA selection show.

The Tigers were a bubble team at the time.

But no, Mainieri said at a news conference later that day, his decision was not team performance-related. The choice was “mine,” he said, and health-related.

At the time, Mainieri was 63 years old and had been dealing with years of neck pain that had gotten worse over the 2021 season, according to multiple reports. He said he’d considered retirement for “months” and, after a conversation with his wife, had made a final decision the week of his announcement.

“I want to see the program continue to prosper and continue to get better,” Mainieri said during an emotional news conference. “I want the same thing for the next coach and for these kids that are in the program now.”

What were Paul Mainieri’s health issues?

According to reporting from The (Baton Rouge) Advocate, Mainieri started feeling neck pain in 2018 when he fell asleep on an airplane and his neck felt stiff afterward. “He suspected the sensation would go away,” the newspaper wrote.

But “it worsened.”

To combat the pain, per The Advocate, Mainieri tried steroid treatment shots, spine injections and a process called radiofrequency ablation, which burns nerve endings. He also sought help from a chiropractor and physical therapist and eventually underwent surgery to “insert a prosthetic disc” after it was discovered he was missing two vertebrae in his neck/spine.

LSU’s coach initially felt better, the newspaper wrote, but he had to get a spinal fusion in 2020 after pain persisted.

Mainieri also dealt with chronic headaches, which limited his ability to be a hands-on head coach and fully engage with his players.

As he retired, Mainieri intimated he was “hoping his neck pain will subside without the stress of directing a premier college baseball program,” the Advocate wrote.

Why is Paul Mainieri ready to coach again?

Within a year after retiring from LSU, Mainieri was interviewing for other top college baseball jobs. He took a call from Notre Dame, where he’d coached from 1995-2006, during the 2022 cycle but said he “didn’t feel ready” to get back into the sport.

The Fighting Irish, at the time, were seeking a replacement for Link Jarrett, who left to coach at his alma mater, Florida State.

Notre Dame ended up hiring Shawn Stiffler from VCU.

In 2023, Mainieri, a Miami native, also interviewed for the head coaching job at Miami after its coach, Gino DeMare, stepped down.

The Hurricanes ultimately promoted pitching coach J.D. Arteaga to head coach that summer.

Mainieri, who’s continued to live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana since retiring, gave another hint he was interested in returning to the sport when he joined Baton Rouge Community College as its “special advisor to the head baseball coach.”

He’d also been working as a special advisor to the LSU athletic department.

Mark Etheridge, an SEC baseball insider for D1Baseball.com, said in a post on X (formerly Twitter) after the Mainieri news broke: “He retired due to health concerns. He’s had time to overcome those & had the itch to return. He did a solid job at LSU. The game has changed since he left, but he’s stayed close, giving hope he can pick up where he left off. That said, I didn’t see this coming.”

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