Mississippi State head baseball coach Chris Lemonis will lead his team into an elimination game against Louisville tonight in the College World Series. Photo by: Kelly Donoho/Mississippi State Athletics
June 20, 2019 10:40:59 AM
Chris Lemonis can still remember the humid South Carolina air.
It was 1989. Air conditioning units still hadn't made their way to The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina.
Walking into his barracks that day, it was this suffocating heat that made a strong first impression on Lemonis.
"It was hot and old and a little intimidating I guess would be the word," Lemonis recalled.
Soon after, a freshman baseball player meeting followed. It was there Lemonis met Dan McDonnell -- an upbeat infielder from New York.
For nearly 30 years, that moment sparked a bond that still persists today, when McDonnell's No. 7 Louisville team faces Lemonis' No. 6 Mississippi State squad in a College World Series elimination game.
"We're best friends ... college roommates," said Lemonis, MSU's first-year head baseball coach. "We've always said if we're going to meet, let's meet in Omaha."
Building the Louisville program
After their four years of playing at The Citadel, Lemonis and McDonnell both joined head baseball coach Fred Jordan's staff at the school.
For the next six years, the two worked together in the Big South Conference looking to help their beloved alma mater back to the College World Series -- a feat they had accomplished as players in 1990.
Eventually the two parted ways. McDonnell headed to Ole Miss as an assistant under Mike Bianco's direction, while Lemonis stayed on at his alma mater.
The separation didn't last long.
Sitting behind home plate at U.S. Cellular Field, Lemonis' phone buzzed. It was a text from McDonnell.
The message wasn't out of the ordinary. The two talk almost every day. The result of the conversation, however, was different.
After six seasons at Ole Miss, McDonnell was hired as the head coach at Louisville. Working to assemble his new staff, Lemonis was among the first people he contacted.
"He texted me, 'Hey I got the job. Are you coming?'" Lemonis recalled. "And I just texted back, 'Yes.' And then I called my wife and asked if it was alright."
Over the next eight seasons, Lemonis and McDonnell helped the Cardinals to sights unseen in program history.
Upon their arrival, Louisville had appeared in the NCAA tournament just once -- a 2002 stop at the Atlanta Regional in which the Cardinals were swept in two games.
That quickly changed.
In McDonnell's first season at the helm, Louisville advanced to the CWS. The Cardinals went to Omaha twice more over the next seven seasons.
"We just understood each other so well," McDonnell told The Dispatch. "We respected each other so much. We just came from the same cloth and we were super competitive. It was fun, man. We wouldn't be the program we are today if it weren't for his efforts."
Building that program, Lemonis said, made the coaches' bond that much stronger.
"We had to beat teams for players all over the country, and there's a lot of pride in that we got to build that program and I got to do it with my best friend," Lemonis added. "And really the whole staff, we were so close. We raised our kids together there. It was such a special time in our life."
'It was tough'
A rising star in the college baseball coaching business, Lemonis' work at Louisville earned him his first big break -- a head-coaching job at Indiana University.
"I knew the situation, I knew the team, I knew the players, I was from that recruiting base. I knew it was a good town, great school," he said. "So we came up and spent the day and it was a pretty easy decision."
When the inevitable moment came, Lemonis hated it. So did McDonnell.
In each of the four seasons that Lemonis led the Hoosiers, he faced McDonnell and his former employer each year in the regular season.
"We were so close to each other then," Lemonis said. "And you're fighting for recruits and you're fighting for everything. It was tough."
Despite the Cardinals' recent string of success, Lemonis finished his time in Bloomington with a 3-1 record against his former teammate.
"Just not a good feeling," McDonnell said of having to play his pal. "But we had to do it. We're less than two hours apart, we're Power Five programs, and it was something we had to do. But it wasn't something I was crazy about."
'It'll come down to the kids'
Positioned at the podium at last Friday's CWS opening press conferences, Lemonis and McDonnell sat next to one another between Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin and Auburn's Butch Thompson.
As questions swirled regarding matchups, the Southeastern Conference's four teams in the field and the overall feel of Omaha, there was a sense of endearment between McDonnell and Lemonis in their answers about their relationship.
"Just so proud of him because we played together, we coached together, we were in each other's weddings. It's family," McDonnell said. "I mean, his daughters and my sons -- they act like family. Our wives are best friends. So it's really neat."
Tonight, Lemonis' and McDonnell's uneasiness of playing each other will come to the forefront of the baseball world as one of MSU or Louisville will be eliminated from the CWS.
And though it is not the national title game as they had hoped, both coaches are taking the contest in stride and looking to keep the focus on their players.
"Obviously one of us will go home, but one of us will get to keep playing," Lemonis said. "But the reality is it's Mississippi State against Louisville, and neither Dan nor I get to swing a bat or hopefully him not steal a base or anything like that. It'll come down to the kids."
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch.
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