Former Citadel player, coach returns as Indiana head coach

Indiana coach Chris Lemonis. (Photo provided)

One of the first things that Chris Lemonis did when he took over as the head baseball coach at Indiana in July was to check out the Hoosiers’ schedule for the upcoming season.

As Lemonis went down the schedule he couldn’t help but smile.

Just three weeks into his tenure as the Hoosiers’ head coach, Indiana would be playing against the College of Charleston.

Lemonis would be coming home.

Lemonis, a former Socastee High School star, spent the first two decades of his young adult life in Charleston as a player and assistant coach at The Citadel.

Although he has returned to Charleston before as an assistant coach with Louisville, this will be the first time he has been back to the Lowcountry as a head coach. It’s a trip that he, his wife Jill and his two daughters Marissa and Mackenzie circled on their calendar months ago.

“Jill and I still consider Charleston home,” Lemonis said. “I’ve bounced around a couple of different places, but I spent the better part of my life in Charleston. Both of my daughters were born in Charleston. It just feels like home to me. Louisville is great, Bloomington (Ind.) is great, but there’s that one special place that will always be home for me and that’s Charleston. Jill and the girls are coming on this trip with us, so it’s a weekend that everyone in our family has been looking forward to for a while.”

The decision to play against the College of Charleston was made long before Lemonis was hired as the Hoosiers’ head coach. Cougars head coach Monte Lee and former Indiana coach Tracy Smith, now the head coach at Arizona State, had agreed to play more than a year ago.

“This series was already on the schedule before I got here,” Lemonis said. “I’m sure that the folks at The Citadel are not thrilled about us playing the College of Charleston first, but I’m sure we’ll schedule (Citadel) in the near future. Charleston is a great baseball town.”

Lemonis, 45, first arrived in Charleston as a freshman at The Citadel in 1989. He was on the Bulldogs team that played in the College World Series and was an assistant coach for 12 years at The Citadel from 1995-2006. He helped lead the Bulldogs to five NCAA regional appearances.

“I can’t tell you what that place means to me,” Lemonis said.

When former Citadel second baseman Dan McDonnell took over the Louisville program in 2006, one of his first calls was to Lemonis. The two played together on the world series team and later served together on Fred Jordan’s coaching staff with the Bulldogs.

“I didn’t want to leave The Citadel, but it was a chance to work with my best friend and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity,” Lemonis said.

In eight seasons, the Cardinals became a powerhouse, making three College World Series appearances. Lemonis was a driving force behind Louisville’s rise to national prominence working as the Cardinals top recruiter.

“Chris Lemonis is one of the top recruiters in the country,” Jordan said. “He was a great recruiter for us at The Citadel and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that knows college baseball that Louisville was able attract the talent they did while Chris was on their coaching staff. He’s got a great baseball mind and he’s a tireless worker.”

Lemonis was happy in Louisville and not looking to leave. He had turned down interview offers at several schools, including Penn State.

“I didn’t want to waste their time,” Lemonis said. “I didn’t want to take a job and then leave three or four years later.”

But when Indiana, which played in the College World Series in 2013 and was a national seed last season, came calling, Lemonis knew he had to listen.

“I wanted a destination job, a lifetime job where I knew I didn’t want to leave after a couple of years,” Lemonis said. “It was a perfect fit for me and my family. It’s a great school, a great campus, and baseball is important here. You can win on a national level. I felt like it was the home run type of job that I’d been looking for.”

Lee is convinced that Lemonis will keep the Hoosiers among the nation’s elite programs.

“Chris is really one of the best people in the game of baseball,” Lee said. “Even when I was playing at the College of Charleston and he was coaching at The Citadel, he was always so nice to me. I know he’s going to make his mark at Indiana. He is going to do great things at Indiana.”

Lemonis and Lee have known each other for years. Lemonis, who was an assistant coach at The Citadel at the time, can still remember watching Lee play for Lugoff-Elgin High School.

“That’s how old I am,” Lemonis said with a chuckle. “Monte had a triple the night I saw him. I’m not sure if we offered him or not. In retrospect we probably should have, Monte was a great college baseball player.”

Indiana comes to town with a 3-3 mark. The Hoosiers beat Stanford two of three games during their opening series, but lost to Presbyterian College (5-2) and Furman (6-5, 12 innings) last weekend during the First Pitch Invitational in Greenville last weekend.

“That’s baseball,” Lemons said.

The Cougars, meanwhile, are coming off a three-game sweep of The Citadel. The Cougars (4-2) will be without sophomore pitcher Bailey Ober the rest of the season. Ober, who was the national freshman pitcher of the year, had season-ending elbow surgery this week.