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STARKVILLE – When all is said and done, it came down to recruiting. That’s why athletic director John Cohen chose Chris Lemonis over interim head coach Gary Henderson as Mississippi State’s 18th head baseball coach.
“The most dynamic recruiter I’ve been around in my 25 years as a head baseball coach,” Cohen said of Lemonis, whom Cohen recruited against when Cohen was at Kentucky and Lemonis was at Louisville.
“He’s a recruiting machine,” Cohen said.
Cohen introduced Lemonis as “the total package” at a Tuesday morning news conference, open to the public, down the right field line at still-under-construction Dudy Noble Field. The 48-year-old Lemonis, wearing a gray suit, was warmly welcomed by a couple hundred fans, who only last week were cheering for the Bulldogs in the College World Series – an oddity not lost on Lemonis.
Lemonis said he had never heard of a freshly hired coach introducing himself to his new team, two days after they had been eliminated at Omaha. Neither have I.
But that’s the case here, still another oddity in what has been one of the strangest – and at the same time most rewarding springs – in State baseball history.
We should address the Henderson situation before going further. Cohen praised the job Henderson did in taking over for Andy Cannizaro in the first week of the season and guiding the Bulldogs to the Regional and Super Regional championships and two CWS victories.
Cohen called Henderson a long-time friend and said, “I spent more time with Gary Henderson at the University of Kentucky (where Henderson was Cohen’s pitching coach and then succeeded him as head coach) than I spent with my wife.”
Cohen said Henderson will have a job at State if he wants it, and/or he will help Henderson any way he can in landing another coaching job. “He’s not being kicked to the curb,” Cohen said.
But, at the same time, Cohen said his job was to do what was best for the future of Mississippi State baseball “to fill all these seats and win championships.”
Lemonis, he said, was the clear choice.
Even Lemonis, the man who got the job, said he felt for Henderson.
“It’s gotta be tough,” he said, when asked about Henderson. “My heart goes out to him. He did a phenomenal job.”
Henderson really did, as was written here in this space 13 days ago. My take was that Henderson had earned the job.
Cohen, who is paid to know a lot more about college baseball than I, believes Lemonis is the smarter choice. Time will tell. (Of course, if Lemonis is wildly successful at State, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Henderson wouldn’t have been.)
Cohen, a highly intelligent guy (baseball and otherwise), makes big bucks to make these decisions. He owns this one.
And Lemonis, whose stated goal is to “bring a national championship” to State, is impressive, both his background and presence.
He was a dirtbag, walk-on player at The Citadel where he helped that tiny, military school reach the CWS. He then coached there and successfully recruited at a place where even the athletes have to wear uniforms to class, march in formation – and lots, lots more. He then, as an assistant, recruited some of the best talent in America to Louisville, which became a national powerhouse while he was there. Lemonis comes to State from Indiana where he had a 141-92-2 record over four seasons as head coach. Most impressively, Lemonis guided the Hoosiers to three NCAA Regionals in those four years. Indiana had only been to three regionals in its entire history before that.
More on Lemonis:
• He spent his infancy in Starkville, where his father earned his engineering degree.
• He will retain Jake Gautreau as hitting coach and chief recruiter. Other staff hires are in limbo. “It’s been a whirlwind,” he said.
• A native of Myrtle Beach, S.C., Lemonis and his wife, Jill, have two daughters, Marissa and Mackenzie. All were present at Tuesday’s press conference.
• Yes, Lemonis said, he watched State in the CWS. “Man, they play hard,” he said. “That’s my biggest take-away, how hard they play.”
• Lemonis received a four-year contract with a base salary of $600,000 a year, escalating $25,000 over each of the next three years. He will receive a retention bonus of $50,000 if he remains MSU’s coach on June 30, 2021.
Jake Mangum, the Bulldogs’ centerfielder, leadoff hitter and emotional leader, said he and his teammates were impressed with Lemonis during a team meeting Monday evening.
“It was very, very positive; we’re excited,” he said. “I can see why he’s such a great recruiter.”
Had he talked to Gary Henderson?
“Not yet,” Mangum said. “We all love Coach Henderson and can’t thank him enough for the job he did with us this year.”
He left the next part unsaid, which is, “Time to move on…”
And it is time for some stability in the proud State program. Lemonis, the fourth head coach (including Cohen and Henderson) in little over two years, made it clear he plans to be around a long time.