Mississippi State vs. Louisville. Chris Lemonis vs. Dan McDonnell. An SEC elite vs. an ACC powerhouse. Thursday night at the College World Series saw a college baseball heavyweight bout between two programs that have become all too familiar with TD Ameritrade Park Omaha.
It was also a battle between two best friends.
A 3-0 Mississippi State lead started to slowly dwindle away, as McDonnell's Cardinals got two in the seventh before a thrilling two-run comeback capped by a Drew Campbell walk-off single ended the Bulldogs time in Omaha and advanced Louisville to its first semifinals in program history.
All with his best friend standing on the top step of the dugout across the way.
"It dawned on me this morning," McDonnell said in a postgame interview. "Mike Martin is retired since he left last night, and I thought, 'okay, I'm not going to coach against him anymore, so who would I accept losing to more than any other coach in the country'. I thought, 'well, isn't this ironic, I'm playing against Chris Lemonis tonight.' So it just kind of gave me a soft spot to go, if it happens tonight, be thankful it's to your best friend and he still gets to play."
So, how did this whole thing begin? There has been a lot made of the unique ties between Chris Lemonis and Dan McDonnell since the 2019 CWS began in Omaha. Their journey to Thursday night began three decades ago, first as teammates and then side-by-side as assistant coaches.
Just think about that. Two head coaches of two top-ranked college baseball schools born from the same program. And it wasn’t a Texas, or LSU, or a Southern California, or some big conference, college baseball powerhouse from which they hailed.
It was The Citadel.
The Citadel has made just one College World Series in program history. That was back in 1990 when Lemonis and McDonnell roamed the infield. They were two very different players, Lemonis — who was actually left off the CWS roster as a freshman to ensure the Bulldogs had a spot for extra pitching — hit for average with some nice pop (a .339/.412/.536 career slash line and 23 home runs show that) while McDonnell did it any way he could, finishing as The Citadel’s career leader in walks (185) and fourth all-time in stolen bases (99).
“We gave him a hard time because he would never swing," teammate and now The Citadel head coach Tony Skole said of McDonnell to The Post and Courier. "He would take and take and foul off pitches, and we’d get on him. But he led the conference in walks and stolen bases. He was a self-made player and a true warrior.”
This is going to be a great one tonight. @LouisvilleBSB vs @HailStateBB w/two of our own from @Citadel1842 squaring off. What are the odds 2 coaches who were teammates in college having the opportunity to coach against each other in #Omaha at the @NCAACWS? Good luck Mac and Lem! pic.twitter.com/gnSV1P711G— Tony Skole (@TSkole7) June 20, 2019
But from the early goings, you could tell they shared one very important feature in common. They were winners.
Of course, starting your career as assistant coaches at a military academy doesn’t make things easy.
“You want to learn how to recruit? Spend time at a military college,” McDonnell told the Post and Courier. “You have to convince kids that you’re going to get up at six in the morning, you have to wear this uniform every day, you’re gonna get your head shaved.”
But win they did. McDonnell — who was The Citadel assistant from 1993-2000 — and Lemonis — who was there from 1995-2006 — were part of the same coaching staff that led the Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament in 1994, 1995, 1998, and 1999.
People noticed. In 2001, McDonnell was swept up by Ole Miss as its assistant coach. It didn’t take too long before he got his first head coaching gig at Louisville in 2007.
Where he hired his best friend Chris Lemonis as an assistant.
From 2007 to 2014, McDonnell and Lemonis led the Cardinals to seven NCAA tournament appearances and the first three College World Series in program history. Eventually, teams came calling and it was Lemonis’ turn to shine as a head coach. He stopped at Indiana for four seasons, before becoming the head coach at Mississippi State this season.
The fourth coach this Mississippi State team had seen in four years. A senior class Lemonis had to win over, looking to return to the College World Series after facing more adversity off the field than your average college baseball squad. And what did Lemonis do? His Diamond Dawgs helped him set the SEC record for the most wins ever by a first-year head coach. And they used that momentum to roll all the way to Omaha, where their season came to an end Thursday night.
When you take a job with a college baseball powerhouse, there had to expectations that one day these two paths would cross on baseball’s biggest stage.
That didn’t make it any easier.
“Yeah, it's hard,” McDonnell said. “It'll be hard to talk about it so I'm going to try not to. I don't ever prepare for the season to end. You don't ever mentally go there. It's hard to. So when the season ends, I have nothing prepared for what I'm going to say in the outfield, and I have nothing prepared for this press conference. But it dawned upon me that if we lost today, I would have lost to one of my best friends.”
After the game, the Mayor of Starksville, SEC all-time hit leader Jake Mangum, gave a ringing endorsement to his first-year coach. "You're going to bring the first national championship to this baseball program," Mangum said to a room full of media after the game. "You are. And it's going to be awesome. I can't wait to see it."
Something tells us these two are just getting started on the next chapter of college baseball's unique friendship.