Skip Bertman built the wall at LSU. Before he arrived in Baton Rouge in 1984, LSU had been in the NCAA Tournament one time, in 1975. They’d never been to the College World Series. The SEC Baseball we know of today, with more than half the conference not just harboring but having legitimate aspirations and a chance at going to Omaha, really didn’t exist. It is in large part a manifestation of the dominant success Bertman had (as well as Ron Polk’s, the Father of SEC Baseball, success at Mississippi State.) And Bertman proceeded to build the wall about 100 feet high.
11 trips to Omaha. Five national championships on The Intimidator in right field. Changing the sport through Geauxrilla Ball. LSU wound up surpassing USC and even Texas and Miami as the face and personification of excellence in college baseball. They became in many ways the 2nd most popular and important sport on the LSU campus, behind only football, which is very unique for a non-Big Two sport at a Power 5 school. All of this was incredible stuff and a testament to Bertman’s remarkable legacy at LSU and in college baseball.
But eventually, Skip Bertman retired. And the wall had to be maintained. The problem is, how do you maintain the wall that Bertman built? How do you follow winning five national titles in a decade, being an Omaha fixture every year, and being synonymous with winning? The task was left up to Smoke Laval, a longtime Bertman lieutenant. He could not do it. He did not do poorly. A five-year tenure of two trips to the College World Series, an SEC regular-season championship, a division title, and four NCAA Tournament berths is hardly a massive failure.
But in his first year, LSU failed to win a Regional for the first time in seven years. They would make it to Omaha in Years 2 and 3 but suffered the most ignominious of outcomes for LSU fans short of a Regional loss….the dreaded 2-and-Q. Laval’s two trips to Omaha represented only the 2nd and 3rd times LSU had ever gone to Omaha and failed to win a game. They are two of only four times it’s ever happened. But beyond the results, Laval failing to maintain the wall meant LSU baseball felt less special. There is an intangibleness to LSU baseball that is unique. When it’s at its best, it feels special. Alex Box Stadium is one of the best college sports venues in the country; not just one of the best baseball ones. And LSU in the first half-decade of the post-Bertman era wasn’t special.
This is where Paul Mainieri comes in. Paul Mainieri was not tasked with maintaining the wall, which is as hard a job as you can get in sports. There was probably no one who was maintaining it. He was tasked with what may be the 2nd hardest task and in this scenario every bit as hard as Laval’s. He had to build the wall back up. That 100 feet wall was no more than half its size, if that when Mainieri arrived in Baton Rouge in 2007. LSU baseball no longer had that intangible quality it possessed for so long. And not only was he expected to build the wall back up but he was also expected to maintain it too and maybe even build it higher. That is the looming specter of Skip Bertman that every LSU baseball coach will have over them forever.
Paul Mainieri had to deal with that looming specter for 15 seasons. He had to deal with that pressure day in, and day out. But what made Paul Mainieri so lovable - and beleaguered to some - was that he didn’t shrink from that pressure. Beyond the record and accomplishments and what was and wasn’t; Paul Mainieri believed LSU Baseball should be everything the fans did. No one had higher expectations than Mainieri did, and he never once tried to lower the ceiling of this program. There was a special affinity for LSU that Mainieri had from his one season there as a player in 1976, and because of his tremendous respect for Bertman. He said that all he wanted to do was make Bertman proud, and in his eyes, that meant living up to that legacy.
That legacy is impossible to live up to, but Mainieri’s own legacy and record tell how he came close and nearly did rebuild that 100-foot wall; and how he didn’t. The ways he did: In his 15 seasons, LSU won its 6th national championship. It got back to the mountaintop it so craved with Paul. It made four further trips to the CWS, including one to the championship series in 2017. It won nine regionals in a 13-year span from 2008-2021.
It made Hoover Met Alex Box East, winning six SEC Tournament titles. There were four regular-season championships too, for a combined 10 in 15 years. There was the 23 game win streak, the gold jerseys, the SEC title, and UC Irvine comeback in Super Regionals in 2008 to go back to Omaha. Opening up the new Alex Box en route to a national title in 2009. The Rally Possum. Beating Oregon State twice to get to the Finals in 2017 after the Beavers had only lost four games all year. There are Tiger alums littered across Major League Baseball as superstars, such as Alex Bregman and Aaron Nola.
Then there were the ways he didn’t. There was not a second national championship after 2009. Mainieri spoke often throughout his time about “the number.” That being the number of national titles he wanted to add to The Intimidator and would feel meant he lived up to the expectations Skip Bertman set. They didn’t hit it. Even had they completed a miracle run to a title this year, they wouldn’t have. No one will ever forget the Stony Brook Super Regional loss; not rival fans looking to gloat or LSU fans themselves.
There was possibly Mainieri’s best team in 2013, that won 57 games and 23 in SEC play, going 2-and-Q in Omaha. The Houston Regional in 2014 stung, as did losing to Florida in the championship series in 2017. The last few years saw a decline that put a lot of pressure on Mainieri at the end of his run, the pressure that with his unfortunate health issues likely contributed to both sides decided it was time. It stopped being coming up short in Omaha, but rather in the regular season and SEC play.
Here’s the thing about Paul Mainieri though: He came as close as anyone could to rebuilding that wall. Was it 100 feet tall? No. But when faced with the task of making LSU baseball LSU Baseball again, he did it. There’s a reason the fans yelled about how someone could do better for all those years. About PULMONARY. Because Mainieri did such a great job, you couldn’t be apathetic. That’s where Laval failed; LSU fans became apathetic. Mainieri made LSU fans happy, he made them mad, but he made us feel for the decade and a half that he had this job.
And that, as much as anything, was his responsibility when he got this job. Paul Mainieri wasn’t just asked to win at LSU or win championships. He was asked to make LSU Baseball feel special again. To bring back that intangible feeling and quality to LSU that existed for the Bertman years. Maybe he didn’t win as many championships as Skip did. But he restored the program to where it belonged. And for that, it was a job well done.