What Paul Mainieri said about age, health, how long he plans to coach at South Carolina

Tracy Glantz/tglantz@thestate.com

Paul Mainieri is the oldest head coach South Carolina has hired to coach one of the “big four” sports in the SEC era.

The 66-year-old was officially introduced as the leader of Gamecocks baseball Thursday afternoon. And before he could field any questions with regard to his age — and a health history that caused him to retire from the sport three years ago — Mainieri brought the topic up on his own in a press conference at the Cockaboose Club in Williams-Brice Stadium.

The American Baseball Coaches Hall of Famer assured the crowd of family, USC athletics staffers, several members of his baseball team and local media: Sixty-six? “That’s just a number.”

“I don’t feel anything close to 66 years old,” Mainieri said in his opening remarks. “I feel like I’m 40 years old again. I am so excited about being here and doing this job.”

The new patriarch of South Carolina baseball conceded that one week ago, he couldn’t have imagined having an “introductory press conference” on the docket for June 13. Neither could anybody else. But athletic director Ray Tanner reminded Mainieri, his former SEC foe and longtime friend, of his recruiting chops. And, with encouragement from his wife of 44 years, Karen, Mainieri decided to take the job.

Mainieri told The Advocate this week that his tenure at South Carolina won’t “be for 20 years.” But “hopefully, health wise (I’ll) be able to retire when I want to.” His contract with the Gamecocks runs for five years with an annual salary of $1.3 million.

Though Tanner said he’s “not holding him to five. I want more.”

For comparison, Lou Holtz was 61 when the university hired him as football coach in 1998. Steve Spurrier was 59 when South Carolina hired him in 2004 to replace Holtz.

Mainieri will turn 67 on Aug. 29, just before the Gamecocks begin fall practice. He made it clear Thursday that South Carolina will be the final coaching stop of his career.

“I don’t know how much longer I’m going to coach,” he said, offering that he hopes “we’re going to do well enough that (assistant coach) Monte (Lee) will be ready to take over when I’m finished.”

South Carolina made Lee the highest paid assistant in the country Tuesday when it approved his three-year, $550,000 per year contract. The raise doubled his salary.

In 2021, Mainieri announced his intention to retire from coaching after 15 years, five College World Series appearances (2008, 2009, 2013, 2015, 2017) and a national championship (2009) at LSU. He cited health issues. Then 63, Mainieri had dealt with neck pain for years that necessitated a variety of taxing treatments such as steroid shots, spinal injections, radiofrequency ablation (which burns nerve endings), a spinal fusion and surgery to “insert a prosthetic disc” in neck/spine.

He also battled chronic headaches, The Advocate reported. Mainieri hoped eliminating the stress of leading one of college baseball’s premier programs would help the neck pain and headaches subside.

Since retiring, Mainieri said Thursday, he’s taken time to deal with those issues, and the pain has improved with each passing year.

But Mainieri couldn’t stay away from the game long, interviewing for other highly touted college baseball jobs within a year of retirement. He spoke with Notre Dame — where he coached from 1995-2006 — in 2022, though he ultimately confessed he “didn’t feel ready” to return to the sport. And in 2023 he interviewed for the head coaching job at Miami, where he’s from. The Hurricanes ended up promoting pitching coach J.D. Arteaga instead.

Since retiring but before accepting Tanner’s offer to lead USC, Mainieri took a role as “special advisor to the head baseball coach” at Baton Rouge Community College and worked as a special advisor for the LSU athletic department.

Mainieri said wife Karen urged him to accept Tanner’s offer because she knew there was something missing in his life. He was unable to leave LSU on his own terms because of his health, which weighed heavily on him, having to pause six times during that farewell press conference to collect his emotions.

But there were no tears in Columbia on Thursday. Only a spry 66-year-old man wearing a gray pinstripe suit, a garnet-and-black tie and a smile, eager to make his triumphant return to the diamond.