Winning: Love of baseball drives success for MSU head coach Chris Lemonis

 

MSU head baseball coach Chris Lemonis

MSU head baseball coach Chris Lemonis Photo by: Courtesy photo/Kelly Donoho, Mississippi State Athletics

 

Chris Lemonis likes what he sees from his team during a regular season game against Texas Southern. He's won 45 games so far this year in his first season at the helm of Mississippi State's baseball team.

Chris Lemonis likes what he sees from his team during a regular season game against Texas Southern. He's won 45 games so far this year in his first season at the helm of Mississippi State's baseball team.
Photo by: Courtesy photo/Kelly Donoho, Mississippi State Athletics

 

 

Ben Portnoy

 

 

Mississippi State head coach Chris Lemonis is quietly competitive. Never one to get too high or too low, he almost gives off an aloof vibe at times. 

 

Lemonis presented an anomaly to his generally mild-mannered disposition in a May 8 midweek win over Memphis. As Tiger runners stole second and third base, Bulldogs freshman catcher Luke Hancock attempted to throw around the batter to no avail. 

 

Disgruntled with the lack of a batter's interference call, Lemonis barged toward home plate. Huffing and puffing, guffawing and arguing -- he made his displeasure with home plate umpire Lance Weems known. 

 

With a subtle nod to the event postgame, Lemonis said through a frown he and the umpire disagreed on whether Hancock was trying to throw out the runner at second or third. 

 

It's not often his feistiness boils over. Yet at his core, Lemonis is a fierce competitor -- a passion that is deeply rooted in his college days at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina. 

 

"It wasn't the easiest of times going to a military school," he said. "But we had really good baseball during that time and we had the times of our lives." 

 

After receiving an academic scholarship, Lemonis reluctantly agreed to take a tour of the academy in the fall of his senior year of high school. 

 

As he wandered the drill fields and checkered courtyards, he'd had enough. He was ready to go home to Myrtle Beach. He hated it. 

 

Baseball ultimately changed his mind. 

 

A few months later, Lemonis received a call from Citadel coach Chal Port. The Bulldogs had an opening for him. Swallowing his initial disdain for the school, Lemonis accepted the walk-on spot. 

 

"I wanted to keep playing baseball so I sacrificed shaving my head, doing all that so I could keep playing the game," he said. 

 

 

 

Hurricane and heartbreak 

 

The Citadel sits in the heart of Charleston, just minutes from the Ashley River. 

 

Known for its discipline and devotion to a military tradition, the school is rigid, rough and strict -- so much so 17 percent of students don't return after their freshman year. 

 

"When you're a freshman you go through the worst year of your life together," Louisville head coach and former Citadel player Dan McDonnell said. 

 

The regulated lifestyle of the school begins on Matriculation Day, a cadet's first official day on campus. 

 

Freshman, or "knobs" as they are known in reference to the bald trim the male recruits were required to bear at the time, are assigned to a company and issued their bluish-grey and white-panted uniforms.  

 

A physical fitness test comprised of push-ups, crunches and a one and a half-mile run also is required of all students once per semester. 

 

The obligatory prim and properness of a uniformed soldier was nothing new to Lemonis. Three of his family members had joined the armed forces, though his attending a military school was more by happenstance than desire. 

 

"My grandfather was in the Air Force, my dad was in the Air Force, my sister went into the Army. I just wanted to play baseball," Lemonis said. "That shows you what I'd sacrifice to play the game." 

 

With the difficulties of knob year persisting, extreme weather also marred his first fall on campus. 

 

On September 22, 1989, Hurricane Hugo made landfall just north of Charleston. Though it had slightly downgraded before bearing down on the southeastern United States, the storm peaked as a Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale -- the highest classification possible for a hurricane. 

 

"We missed school for like two weeks," Lemonis said. "Totally tore up Charleston, tore up our ball field. All our light poles fell into the middle of the field." 

 

Back home in Myrtle Beach, he and his family headed inland to escape the impending disaster. They rented out the conference space at a Holiday Inn due to the lack of room availability. 

 

In all, 21 fatalities were recorded in the continental U.S. due to the storm. At the time, it was the most costly hurricane in U.S. history at an estimated $7 billion in damage. 

 

Despite the hurricane's lasting impact on the city and school, The Citadel baseball team experienced its most successful run in program history that spring. The Bulldogs ripped off 25 consecutive wins en route to the Southern Conference regular season and tournament titles. 

 

After defeating N.C. State, East Carolina and Miami twice in the Coral Gables regional, The Citadel reached its first and only College World Series. 

 

Though the team celebrated its miraculous feat, Lemonis was devastated. With room for just 22 players on the travel roster, he was left off the trip to Omaha. 

 

Once there, the Bulldogs were eliminated in three games -- falling to LSU twice with a win over Cal State-Fullerton sandwiched in between. The team would finish No. 6 in the final Collegiate Baseball Newspaper Poll while Lemonis looked on roughly 1,300 miles away. 

 

"(The success) that he's been blessed with in this game, he deserves, and I think that's one of the ways that the game has sort of paid him back (for being left off the roster)," current Citadel coach and former teammate Tony Skole said. 

 

 

 

'This dude's a star' 

 

Hanging in chronological order from left to right above Lemonis' desk in the baseball offices just outside Dudy Noble Field are jerseys from each of his coaching stops. 

 

A red Indiana top sits to the far right. Lemonis helped the Hoosiers to a 141-91-2 record in four years at the helm in Bloomington before heading to Starkville. 

 

The middle two slots belong to Louisville jerseys. An assistant coach and recruiting ace under McDonnell for eight years, Lemonis helped the Cardinals to three College World Series appearances during his time in the Bluegrass State. 

 

"We spent more time together in those eight years than we did with our wives," McDonnell quipped. "I'm telling you, we were together every day at the field, or if he was recruiting we talked multiple times (per day). 

 

"We just understood each other so well, we respected each other so well, we just came from the same cloth and we were super competitive," he added. "It was fun, man. We wouldn't be the program we are today if it weren't for his efforts." 

 

Furthest to the left is the powder blue uniform of The Citadel. It's been nearly 26 years since Lemonis suited up for the Bulldogs as a player -- though he spent 12 seasons in Charleston as an assistant on longtime coach Fred Jordan's staff. 

 

In 2016, he was elected to the school's Athletic Hall of Fame. A two-time All-SoCon selection during his four years, he batted .367 with 10 home runs and 66 RBIs his senior season. 

 

"Always had personality and always laughing and always joking around, but when it came time to compete, the joker could compete and he could hit," McDonnell said. "(Lemonis) could flat out hit." 

 

"He had some lightning in his hands," Skole added. "Just drove in a ton of runs." 

 

Decades on, Lemonis now leads a different Bulldogs squad into the postseason. His 45 wins entering this week's Southeastern Conference tournament are the most by any first-year coach in conference history. He has also led MSU to the No. 4 seed and a share of the SEC West Division title. 

 

But Lemonis is unconcerned with personal acclaim. He stuck through the rigors of The Citadel for one reason -- to win at the game he loves. 

 

"I know he's a star, people in this part of the country know he's a star, but sometimes you're a star even before the rest of the country knows it," McDonnell said. "I just remember thinking (when MSU hired Lemonis), 'Man the country is going to find out that this dude's a star.'"

 

Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch.

 

 

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