Awaited Return

Dan McDonnell walked back into Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field Thursday night for the first time in nearly four years. The last time he walked out of Ole Miss' home ballpark, he wasn't sure when he would return.

"But after we lost the Super Regional to Miami (in 2006)," the former Ole Miss assistant coach said, "I turned around as I walked off the field to take a look and absorb it all for a moment."

McDonnell said he knew it could be a while. There were some opportunities in the works. He had interviewed for some head coaching posts in the past. It was what he wanted after six years with the successful Rebel program and for eight seasons before that at his alma mater, The Citadel.

In a matter of days, he was named the head coach of the Louisville Cardinals. And this weekend he brings his ballclub to Oxford for three games against the Rebels.

It's a national headliner. Ole Miss is ranked 17th and Louisville is ranked 8th. The Rebels are 11-2. The Cardinals a perfect 12-0. McDonnell is pleased to be back in Oxford, a place with so many memories of both baseball and family.

"I remember how after each game the students in right field would start a Hotty Toddy, and the fans in the left field section would start theirs," he said. "It wasn't like that the first year or two."

But that and more caught on fairly quickly as the Rebels began to win more games and to host Regionals and Super Regionals. Much of the credit for those years of success can be attributed to McDonnell's tireless work on the recruiting trail.

It wasn't unusual for him to travel to, say, Hattiesburg and watch a potential recruit play in a game, turn right around and drive back to Oxford. And stay on the phone the entire eight-hour round trip, calling various recruits, scouts, and other contacts to try to find the next great ballplayer or group of ballplayers.

How do I know that? The above actually happened back when he was at Ole Miss. And it continues to happen in Louisville. Tuesday night the Cardinals beat the Indiana Hoosiers. Wednesday night McDonnell was recruiting in northern Ohio. Thursday morning he and his wife, Julie, and sons, Jake and Justin, loaded a vehicle headed for Oxford, with the team bus right behind them.

"Julie made some good friends there through work and church and Bible study, things like that," Dan said of Oxford, mentioning Justin was born during their time here. "My friend was the baseball program. I gave my heart and soul to the program, and I'm proud of what we were able to accomplish."

The same type things are happening for McDonnell at Louisville, who has former Rebel player Xan Barksdale as one of his assistant coaches.

In his first season there, Dan coached his new team to the College World Series and a school-record 47 wins. The Cardinals hadn't been to Omaha in 27 years.

He followed that debut season with two more NCAA Tournament appearances in 2008 and 2009, including back-to-back Big East Conference Tournament titles as well as the program's first Big East regular-season title last year. The 2009 season concluded with Louisville advancing to an NCAA Super Regional for the second time in three years.

McDonnell said he's in a good place, one that offers an opportunity to succeed.

"I hit the jackpot," he said. "Tom Jurich (Louisville AD) shares my passion and my vision."

But McDonnell gives much of the credit for his knowledge of how a program should be built to his time with Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco.

"Mike was great," he said. "He let us share ideas as assistant coaches. He taught us not to make excuses. Don't live a life of what you don't have. Live with what you do have.

"I remember how we did things when Mike got the job and we came on board with him," Dan continued. "He brought the Skip Bertman system with him (from LSU), and he convinced that first group that they could win and win now. I took the blueprint to Louisville, and we do many of the same things here."

Pitch it well. Hit it well. Play good defense. And hang a motivational shirt in the dugout. Even the fans have bought into Louisville baseball as the numbers grow each year.

"The fans are what make it special," Dan said of Ole Miss. "Just unbelievable. I remember them lining up for the gates to open before those Super Regionals. We're beginning to get that at Louisville. I remember last year at our Regional, when the Vandy-MTSU crowd was leaving, our fans had lined up and were waiting to get in the gates in the outfield. I knew I'd seen that before."

Bianco knew shortly after their first contact McDonnell was just the guy to help him build a program, although the Rebel head coach wasn't familiar with him at first.

"The most impressive thing was before the interview," the 10th-year UM head coach said. "I came here with a short list of guys that I wanted to be the head assistant. And nobody wanted to come. They were all at very good programs, and they were lateral moves. After that list was depleted, I really didn't know where to go. So I tried to gather information, and Dan's name just kept coming up.

"We get the fax in and the FedEx package and you read the letter and you say ‘Wow, this guy really wants the job. He has real passion. But I didn't know much about The Citadel."

So Bianco looked at McDonnell's references.

"Ray Tanner (the South Carolina coach), Jack Leggett (the Clemson coach), certainly well-respected coaches," he said. "I placed calls to them, and they all loved him and said he had done a terrific job and really got after it recruiting. They all had very high praise about Dan."

Then Bianco met McDonnell.

"And when you talked to him, you could feel that energy," he said. "That energy and that passion. He came in for the interview. But I was certain when we decided to fly him in that I would hire him.

"I was so sure," Bianco smiled and said, "that when he got here, I had the radar gun and the cell phone behind my desk. And he used both of them a lot from then on. I offered him the job, and he left within a few hours, headed to some tournament in New York to recruit. He hit the ground running and never stopped for six years.

"If I sat back and thought of the best thing I ever did here," Bianco continued, "that certainly has to be one of them, if not THE one."

The praise and respect are returned from McDonnell.

"I know Ole Miss fans are dying to get to Omaha," Dan said, having been a part of a couple of those oh-so-close calls in Oxford. "But I do know this. They have the best head coach in the country. They have the best atmosphere in the country. The program is a model of consistency."

A model Dan McDonnell had a hand in helping get started.

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