OMAHA, Neb. – In the moments leading up to last weekend’s Starkville Super Regional, Mississippi State head baseball coach Chris Lemonis was feeling the pressure.
Yes, in large part, it was because his Bulldogs were on the cusp of Omaha and a trip to the College World Series. There was also added anxiety though because before MSU’s Starkville Super Regional even began, Louisville had already punched its ticket to Omaha by sweeping past East Carolina.
Why did that matter? Louisville’s head coach is Lemonis’ former teammate, former coworker and still-best friend Dan McDonnell. Lemonis saw a chance to celebrate their relationship on college baseball’s biggest stage.
“I was sitting there (at our super regional) thinking, ‘Man, I don’t want to blow this (because) I’d love to go out (to the College World Series) and be with one of my teammates,’” Lemonis said.
Lemonis got his wish. Mississippi State breezed past Stanford last weekend. That meant on Friday in Omaha, Lemonis sat alongside McDonnell in a press conference looking ahead to the College World Series. It was obviously a proud moment for both men.
“It’s a neat thing,” Lemonis said.
The coaching past
The relationship between Lemonis and McDonnell goes back three decades.
The two played together at The Citadel in the early 1990s. In the back half of that decade, the two served as assistant coaches together at their alma mater.
Lemonis and McDonnell then parted ways for a bit as McDonnell went to serve as an assistant at Ole Miss from 2001 through 2006 while Lemonis stayed put at The Citadel. In 2007 though, McDonnell was hired as the head coach at Louisville and he turned to his old pal Lemonis to help fill out his staff.
Lemonis grew under McDonnell over the following eight years and eventually left McDonnell’s side to become the head coach at Indiana for four years, then, when Mississippi State came calling last year, Lemonis was a Bulldog.
Upon hearing the news and knowing what he knew about his friend, McDonnell believed MSU had knocked the hire out of the park.
“People I knew down at Mississippi State, when (Lemonis) got the job, I just said, ‘Hey man, you got a star. I don’t know if all your fans realize that, but they will soon,’” McDonnell said. “I was very clear this guy is a star and no doubt he would run in there and do great things.”
The personal past
The bond of Lemonis and McDonnell is woven together with more than just baseball. Sure, they’ve won and lost alongside each other as players and coaches, but it’s deeper than that.
“He’s the godparent of my kid and everything else,” Lemonis said of McDonnell.
If one listens to Lemonis talk about McDonnell for a few moments, the two’s tightly-knit relationship becomes apparent. Lemonis was quick to call McDonnell his best friend on Friday. McDonnell elected to use the phrase “one of my best friends” to describe Lemonis. It seemed more a precautionary choice of verbiage because the two have a group of former teammates and more with ties to The Citadel heading to Omaha to root them both on.
“If I’d have said best friend, I’d have had all the other pals in our group getting all over me,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell’s later words seemed to emphasize Lemonis is indeed at the top of his list too.
McDonnell spoke of how he’s watched the success of Lemonis from afar and it sounded much more like he was describing a brother than another baseball coach.
“We were in each other’s weddings,” McDonnell said. “It’s family. I mean, his daughters and my sons, they act like family. Our wives are best friends.”
With the success both coaches have had this year, now the two and their kin can all have a family reunion in Nebraska while chasing their game’s holy grail.
All this creates an interesting dynamic.
Not only are Lemonis and McDonnell in Omaha, they are on the same side of the College World Series bracket. McDonnell’s Cardinals play Vanderbilt on Sunday at 1 p.m. just before Lemonis’ Bulldogs face off against Auburn at 6:30 p.m. If both Louisville and Mississippi State win, or if both lose, Lemonis and McDonnell will stare across the field at each other as opponents in opposite dugouts come Tuesday.
The two have met in a game before, but the stakes were nowhere near this high.
“I got to coach against (Lemonis) when he was at Indiana and it wasn’t a lot of fun,” McDonnell said.
That means it’ll probably be even more painful for both guys should they meet up at any point in the coming days with a chance at a national championship on the line.
In some ways, it might be one of the most difficult things either man has to do, baseball-wise, in their lives. They’ve grown up rooting for each other and standing beside each other. Now, they might end up standing in each other’s way of grabbing the ultimate prize in the game.
It might be a bit awkward. It might hurt a little. Yet what better setting for this relationship to be rekindled?
Late on Friday, on the field at T.D. Ameritrade Park, staff members were putting things in place for the opening ceremony of the College World Series. There was a buzz in the air, much like the one that’ll be in Omaha over the next couple of weeks.
Fans will pack the stands starting today as teams battle to be the last squad standing. Unfortunately for Lemonis and McDonnell, that’s just the nature of sports. Whether it’s a game or a championship, there can be only one winner.
That’ll obviously be the situation the two men will have to deal with should they meet up. One friend will taste victory. The other will be disappointed with defeat.
There will regardless be much to celebrate. These are two guys that grew as men and as coaches right by each others’ sides. Now, they both stand at the mountaintop of college baseball for all the country to see.
“You know, if you’re going to have to cross paths, this is the place to do it,” McDonnell said