Can Paul Mainieri find success as USC coach? Hall of Famer Skip Bertman thinks so

Steven Branscombe/USA TODAY Sports

Some people call it passion. Others call it zest. Or juice. Or gusto.

Skip Bertman refers to it as “zip.” And Paul Mainieri, Bertman said, is “looooaaded with zip.”

Mainieri, the longtime LSU coach, became the 31st head coach in South Carolina baseball history on Tuesday — his first coaching gig since chronic neck pain and headaches forced him to retire following the 2021 season.

Now, three years and a few surgeries later, Mainieri is back in the dugout and, with that, he is again the winningest active coach in college baseball. He is also one of the oldest. Mainieri will be 67 in August and it is not unreasonable to wonder how much any energy — sorry, zip — he’ll bring to the job.

Bertman, the legendary LSU baseball coach and the man who hired Mainieri to coach the Tigers, doesn’t seem worried.

“He’s so fired up,” Bertman said of Mainieri. “He watches LSU games with me and I can tell he misses it a lot. … We’d talk over plays and he wanted to coach, I think.”

Bertman has known South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner for years, even selecting him as an assistant when the LSU coach was tasked with leading the Team USA Baseball team in the 1996 Olympics.

In saying that, though, Bertman noted Tanner didn’t call him during the search process, which meant Bertman only found out when Mainieri called just before news broke and said, “Listen, I’m gonna do this.”

Bertman loved the idea, a chance for Mainieri to end his coaching career on his terms and prove for a few years that not even NIL or the transfer portal can stop Mainieri from winning. Emphasis there on “a few years.”

“This is not hiring a guy and building a program — South Carolina has a good program,” Bertman said. “This is a question of a guy (having the job) for four or five years, putting in all the ingredients that are necessary to compete in the Southeastern Conference.”

The days of dominance that Bertman’s teams enjoyed likely aren’t returning. Regardless, his success during 18 seasons at LSU is so gaudy that he chuckles when some enthusiastic announcer closes out a super regional by hollering, “And they’re gonna go to Omaha for the fourth time!!!”

“I get such a laugh,” Bertman says, “because even I went 11 times.”

Eleven trips to the College World Series. Five national championships. Nine 50-win seasons. And, to be repeated, he did that in just 18 (!) years.

Bertman coached until he was 63 years old then became the LSU athletic director in 2001.

His first replacement choice — Smoke Laval — only went to Omaha twice. Ha. He was out of Baton Rouge in five years. The second hire, though, was magnificent. Mainieri left Notre Dame for LSU and, in 15 seasons, took the Tigers to Omaha five times and won a national title.

Bertman had known Mainieri since he was a young boy. Back in the 1970s, Bertman was a high school coach at Miami Beach High School and would often send players to Miami-Dade North Community College, where Mainieri’s father, Demie, coached for years.

Demie also had a batting cage in his backyard and, for years, he’d have Bertman come over and give hitting lessons to his young son. Not long after, Mainieri was a shortstop for Columbus High, which faced off often against Bertman’s squad.

Decades later, after Mainieri became a coach and Bertman transitioned to athletic director, there was a chase of reuniting.

“When it came time for me to hire a coach at LSU, he was the first call I made,” Bertman said. “I had called him before and he didn’t wanna come. He was at Notre Dame and it was quite different. … But the second time I called him, he took the job.”

Bertman did not offer Mainieri the job because of nostalgia. He did not call because of his last name or because he gave Mainieri hitting instruction during the LBJ administration. He called because Mainieri had been at three different schools, all drastically different in their location, competition and expectations, and won.

His first gig was at a small, private, Catholic university in Miami Gardens called St. Thomas, where he made $3,200 a year to start. After just six seasons, he was the winningest coach in program history and, these days, the Bobcats play their games at Paul Demie Mainieri Field.

Right after, the Air Force Academy decided it wasn’t going to require its head coach to be an active-duty member of the military. The Falcons called on Mainieri to take over the program, sending him 2,000 miles west to coach who were juggling baseball with preparing to be military officers. He won at least 22 games in six-straight seasons, a program first that hasn’t been done since.

Then came Notre Dame, which is a great job because everyone knows Notre Dame and an impossible job because the weather stinks and the academic requirements limit recruiting. Still, Mainieri won over 70% of his games and took the Fighting Irish to the College World Series for the first time in nearly 50 years.

So, yes, of course Bertman called. Of course he is confident that that Mainieri, “looooaaded with zip,” is going to come to a new environment in a new state with new challenges and find a way to win.

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