Mississippi State Director of Athletics John Cohen, left, holds a MSU hat as Chris Lemonis rings a cow bell at a news conference that served as his official introduction as MSU's new baseball coach Tuesday morning at Dudy Noble Field. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
June 27, 2018 10:46:53 AM
By 10 a.m. Tuesday, the temperature had already pushed past 90 degrees and the 200 or so Mississippi State baseball fans who had gathered at the right field pavilion at Dudy Noble Field jockeyed for a spot under a tent awaiting the news conference announcing Chris Lemonis as the Bulldogs' new baseball coach.
Lemonis, until this weekend the baseball coach at Indiana University, sweated in his gray suit as MSU President Mark Keenum and director of athletics John Cohen addressed the fans.
All around them, men in hard hats scurried around Dudy Noble Field, which is in the middle of a $55 million project that will make it indisputably the best college baseball facility in the nation.
It wasn't a great day for an outdoor news conference, but despite the heat and the sweat, Lemonis, 48, wasn't complaining.
"All I can think about is, does it get any better than this?" Lemonis said after he was introduced. "I didn't realize it was so hot in Mississippi, but if I was the AD, I'm showing off this park, too. It's the nicest facility in the country. Mississippi State is a pinnacle job."
Throughout the news conference, Keenum, Cohen and Lemonis talked about MSU's baseball tradition. Keenum compared MSU baseball to Alabama football and Kentucky basketball.
But it's a curious thing, this MSU tradition.
The Bulldogs have never won a national championship. Fourteen other schools have made more appearances in the College World Series. Among Southeastern Conference teams, LSU and Florida, with seven national championships between them, have each made more CWS appearances than MSU. In fact, the Bulldogs have been to Omaha, Nebraska, for the CWS, as many times as Northern Colorado (10 times).
When you think of college baseball, you don't think of Northern Colorado.
Yet no matter where college baseball is played, MSU is recognized as one of the nation's top programs, for reasons that aren't entirely reflected on the list of trips to Omaha or national championships.
To understand what has elevated the program to elite status, all you had to know was 200 people showed up at 10 a.m. on a sweltering Tuesday to greet the team's new baseball coach.
It is the Bulldogs' following that has made MSU a top program. Under Ron Polk, MSU began to prove in the late 1970s that baseball could draw crowds in the SEC, which led the way for explosive growth in the game throughout the league, now considered the nation's best baseball conference. This year, 10 of the league's 14 teams made the NCAA playoffs and four reached Omaha, including Arkansas, which is battling for the national championship.
At MSU, baseball is a big draw, and the evidence of that following is a new baseball facility that will be the envy of every program in the nation.
It is against that backdrop that Lemonis was introduced as coach.
The expectations are simple: Win. Win big. Go to Omaha. Win national championships.
The margin for error will be small, the pressure that accompanies the job large.
But Lemonis has been in tougher situations. He has won at places where it's hard to win -- beginning at his alma mater, The Citadel, then Louisville and Indiana. Before his arrival, those schools had rarely made the NCAA tournament, let alone reached Omaha.
As an assistant coach in charge of recruiting -- Cohen said Lemonis is recognized as one of the top recruiters in the country -- Lemonis is credited with helping build Louisville into a baseball power. He did the same thing at Indiana and helped lead the Hoosiers to the playoffs three times in his four years as head coach.
If you can win at those places, you can win anywhere, the thinking goes.
That was especially true at The Citadel, a small military school in South Carolina.
"I learned at every spot," Lemonis said. "The Citadel, that was my grinder job. You would recruit 10 players and you wouldn't get a one. You would ask them where they were going and they would say, 'Coach, we don't have any offers but we're not going there.'
"I'm looking around here at this great facility and all the program has to offer," he added. "At The Citadel, all you got was a uniform and a bald head. You just had to learn and keep working, keep grinding, keep moving forward."
By Tuesday, Lemonis had found his way to Starkville. On Wednesday, he is the head coach of one of the nation's premier baseball programs. Coincidentally, he has lived in Starkville. When he was 1, his parents studied at MSU. His father earned his engineering degree at MSU in the early 1970s.
"I went to school on an engineering scholarship, but about three weeks in, I said, 'Dad, I don't want to be an engineer,'" Lemonis said. "He wasn't really happy about that, but I went from EE (electrical engineering) to P.E. Real quick."
It has turned out pretty well, Lemonis said.
"Now, my dad is retired, so he gets to come to all the games," he said. "If I'd been an engineer, he wouldn't have anything to do."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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