Publisher’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series examining the growing trend of hiring professional coaches to the staffs of LSU’s big three sports – football, baseball and men’s basketball. Check back Wednesday and Thursday for takes from Les Miles and Johnny Jones.
The LSU baseball program didn’t exactly need an overhaul in operations.
Paul Mainieri guided the Tigers to a national championship in 2009, his third season on the bayou, delivering hardware from Omaha to the natives in Baton Rouge for the sixth time since 1991.
But yet, when the opportunity arose to improve player development at the most important position on the diamond, Mainieri didn’t hesitate. He went through his contacts, went to the figurative bullpen and called in Alan Dunn in June 2011.
A little more than three years later, in July 2014, Mainieri was forced to make a similar call in the aftermath of Javi Sanchez’ resignation. The result, after much due diligence, was the addition of former Tulane star Andy Cannizaro.
In the former LSU now has one of the best, most experienced pitching coaches in NCAA baseball. In the latter LSU has tacked on a young, vibrant personality with name-brand recognition locally to serve as recruiting coordinator and hitting coach.
In both cases Mainieri had to go to Major League Baseball to find them.
Dunn had been in professional baseball since 1993, coaching at every level before making his way up to the show from 2007-10 when he was the bullpen coach for the Baltimore Orioles. Cannizaro, 35, was an amateur scout for the New York Yankees from 2009-14 after wrapping up a professional playing career in 2009.
As Mainieri sees it, the benefits are three-fold of going pro with his hires.
The first: player development. “Part of their attraction in coming to LSU is knowing they have a chance to develop so when they go into professional baseball they’ll have the best chance to succeed and make it all the way to the major leagues,” Mainieri explained. “So when a youngster is looking at different schools, and he sees that you have a coaching staff of people who have been active and involved in professional baseball – I was a minor-league player, Andy grinded his way all the way to the major leagues and Alan was a minor-league player who then coached in professional baseball for 20 years – they see the profile of your staff and have to believe we have an idea of what it takes to get them to their ultimate goal.”
The second: new ideas. “When you’re in professional baseball, you’re exposed to a lot of different ideas and a lot of different coaches. Even coaches are still learning, and they’re able to take different ideas from different people,” reminded Mainieri. “Take Andy Cannizaro, he played next to Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano when he was in the big leagues. My guess is he probably picked their brains quite a bit. So it’s not only Andy’s knowledge of the game, but knowledge that he’s gained from being around other players that he can now share with our players as well. It may be a little hint on how to steal a base or how to hit a ball to the opposite field. When you can say ‘This is what Derek Jeter did,’ does that give you instant credibility with a player or what?”
The third: street cred. “The other thing that happens as a result of bringing former professional baseball personnel is it does give you that instant credibility with recruits and with your current players,” said Mainieri. “I’m not so sure that anybody in professional baseball is any smarter than we are as college coaches, but the perception probably is that they are. So for a youngster that’s selecting a school, the credibility factor (is there). The current players are more accepting and receptive to coaching, and the recruits coming here find that more attractive – working with people who have worked with the best players in the game.”
So if all other factors are equal on prospective candidates for a position on his staff, does experience at the highest level sway Mainieri?
“I’ll say this: If all factors are considered equal, then it’s certainly a factor that could tip the scales. But I would never hire somebody from professional baseball just because they’re from that level,” stressed Mainieri. “It takes you about five minutes to spend with Alan Dunn or Andy Cannizaro to realize they’re so much more than guys who came from professional baseball. They have tremendous personalities as well as the value system and desire to work with young players. Andy is a very charismatic guy, very intelligent, and he’s going to be a great recruiter. Alan obviously is a very intense guy that is a foxhole type of guy. He’s going to get in the foxhole with those pitchers, and they’re going to love him because he’s so demanding of them but also right in there with them.
“You don’t ever try to simplify it so clearly as to say ‘Well this guy worked in pro ball and this guy didn’t, therefore I’m going to take the guy from pro ball.’ There are so many other factors that I look for in my staff members, but if you’ve got the profile of what you want in that person and that person happens to come from the professional baseball ranks, it’s certainly an added bonus. I guess in Louisiana we’d call that lagniappe.”
The bottom line for Mainieri is convincing recruits that the LSU baseball program can make multiple dreams a reality at once, and if bringing on former pro baseball personnel helps to that end, so be it.
“Most kids that come to LSU, really all the kids, have two goals,” Mainieri continued. “They want to go to Omaha and win the national championship, and they want to make it to the major leagues. What I’m trying to get across to these prospects is that those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive of each other. You can have your cake and eat it, too.”
When asked if hiring professional coaches as assistants and coordinators across LSU athletics raises the overall profile of the athletic program, Mainieri balked a bit at the notion but did recognize there could be some benefits by association.
“That may be a result. I know I love sitting down and talking with Cam [Cameron]. Anybody who has experiences that you think you can learn from could be valuable for our own staff in baseball,” Mainieri admitted. “Obviously most followers of the LSU athletic program just want to see the LSU Tigers win, but the reality is when our players leave us and go on to succeed at the highest level of their respective sport, it brings credibility and visibility to our program. That makes us more attractive to younger prospective ballplayers.”
On a final note, Mainieri followed up on those conversations with Cameron, LSU football’s offensive coordinator and a former head coach in the NFL, and shared a thought on gaining perspective from another sport’s coach.
“Cam’s a big baseball fan. He just likes to talk baseball,” said Mainieri. “I haven’t spent that much time with him. Our schedules are so much different, but whenever he comes over to the field we just talk about everything – our backgrounds and so forth. I haven’t told him any plays that he should run yet, and he hasn’t told me when I should hit and run or anything like that.
“You can just tell he’s a good man, a very knowledgeable guy and when you’re around coaches who are used to coaching great athletes and have had a lot of success, you can always learn a lot. I enjoy talking to football and basketball coaches because even though the specific skills are different, athletes are athletes. How you get the best out of them sometimes has some commonalities to it.”