Louisville coach McDonnell member of ’90 Bulldogs squad
BY JEFF HARTSELL
Sometimes, on a late-night bus ride back to Louisville, Dan McDonnell and Chris Lemonis will lock eyes.
“The Citadel won,” one will say to the other, looking up from a cell phone. Or, “They lost on a walk-off.”
No matter how far McDonnell and Lemonis take the Cardinals’ baseball team — and they are taking Louisville to its second College World Series in seven years starting Saturday — they never stray far from their Citadel roots.
“Once you’ve been to Omaha with a team even once, you’re part of that family forever,” explains McDonnell.
McDonnell, the head coach at Louisville since 2007, was a standout second baseman on The Citadel team that shocked the baseball world in 1990 by upsetting mighty Miami on the way to the College World Series.
Lemonis, McDonnell’s right-hand man at Louisville, was a freshman on that 1990 team and an assistant to Citadel coach Fred Jordan for 12 years.
Both trace their coaching success to lessons learned under the late and legendary Citadel coach Chal Port and Jordan, his successor.
“I don’t know if I’d be here today if it weren’t for that 1990 team going to Omaha,” said McDonnell, 42. “You learn an awful lot, and it gives you a lot of confidence.”
McDonnell was just 22 when Jordan gave him his first coaching job at The Citadel and sent him out to recruit. McDonnell found enough players to help the Bulldogs to four NCAA regionals and five Southern Conference titles in eight years.
And those eight years, battling as an underdog against SEC and ACC teams for talent, fueled a fire in McDonnell that he took with him to Ole Miss as an assistant coach in 2000. That fire still has not abated.
“I had such a chip on my shoulder when I got to Ole Miss,” he said. “The Citadel has a lot to offer, but when you are going against N.C. State and Georgia Tech, it’s tough.
“I remember going to my first tournament with that Ole Miss shirt on and saying, ‘Okay, let’s see who wins the battle now.’ Coach Jordan gave me the courage to go to Ole Miss and compete with the best, and he told me I needed to do it. I’ll never forget that.”
McDonnell put together four top 20 recruiting classes (three top 10) in six years at Ole Miss, and the Rebels averaged better than 40 wins a season.
By the time Louisville was looking for a coach in 2006, McDonnell was 35 and ready to be the boss.
“I spent six years at Ole Miss, and it seemed like each year I got closer and closer to getting a head-coaching job,” he said. “By year six, I almost had to go. I was just itching to run my own program.”
At Louisville, he wanted someone to recruit the way he had at Ole Miss. And he knew where to turn — The Citadel.
McDonnell and Lemonis coached together at The Citadel from 1995-2000. In those six seasons, the Bulldogs won three regular-season titles and three tournament championships, and made three NCAA regional appearances.
“Relentless is the best word to describe Dan and Chris when it comes to recruiting,” Jordan said. “They found some ballplayers that were off the map in the late 1990s. We didn’t have all the AAU ball back then, so they left no rock unturned.”
When Louisville hired McDonnell in 2006, his first move was to steal Lemonis away from The Citadel.
“When I got here to Louisville, I felt like Chris would do what I did at Ole Miss,” McDonnell said.
“He’d take that Citadel blue-collar, underdog work ethic and bring it here. You take all those intangibles and now you get to step out of that umbrella and compete against other schools nationally, and he’s been phenomenal.”
Indeed, McDonnell and Lemonis took the Cardinals to the CWS in their first season, 2007, and to three more NCAA appearances in 2008-10. Like McDonnell was at Ole Miss, Lemonis seems ready to run his own program. He’s been involved in coaching searches at Ohio State and Michigan, and reportedly turned down a chance at the Cincinnati job.
“He’s more than ready,” Jordan said. “But it will have to be a very exciting job for Chris to leave the situation at Louisville.”
No question, the Cardinals have it going on. Louisville is the only school this year to win a BCS bowl game, make the Final Four in men’s and women’s basketball, and go to the College World Series. They call it the “Louisville Slam.”
“It was clear when I got here in 2006, this campus is built to succeed,” McDonnell said. “I told our baseball team, you’ve got to get on the train of success and add something to it.”
When McDonnell, a native New Yorker, was growing up, he went to Rick Pitino’s basketball camps at Providence. Now, he takes baseball recruits to basketball practice so they can meet Pitino, who led Louisville to the national title last season.
“That’s the highlight of every recruit’s visit,” he said.
This year, Louisville went 0-2 in the Big East baseball tournament. Concerned, McDonnell called former South Carolina coach Ray Tanner.
“I said, ‘No offense, Ray, but you guys went 0-2 in the SEC tournament, and then won the national championship,’” McDonnell said. “I said, ‘Tell me what you did.’ He was great, and I really needed that. He gave me the blueprint, and I followed it.”
The Cardinals knocked off No. 2 national seed Vanderbilt in the Super Regional, and open play in the CWS against Indiana on Saturday. When Louisville takes the field, McDonnell will take a moment to reflect on his first trip to Omaha.
“When we make it to Omaha,” he said, “we take a part of The Citadel with us.”