LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A lot of coaches play nice in public. They say nice things on the podium. Tonight when Mississippi State meets Louisville in an 8 p.m. elimination game in the College World Series, each coach really will be looking at a best friend in the other dugout.
The two go back three decades. Dan McDonnell and Chris Lemonis played together on a Citadel team that went to the 1990 College World Series. They were young assistants together at The Citadel. When McDonnell came to Louisville, Lemonis was on his first staff, and was there for eight seasons until becoming the head coach at Indiana.
While he coached there, his daughters lived with McDonnell while they finished out the school year.
McDonnell is the godfather of Lemonis' oldest child. They were in each other's weddings. There's a sizable group of their old Citadel teammates in town.
Is there a button I can push here for some guitar music. Where's Tom Rinaldi?
"Obviously I got one of my best friends here," McDonnell said, nodding to Lemonis last week. ". . . Just so proud of him because we played together. We coached together. We were in each other's weddings. It's family. I mean, it's -- his daughters and my sons, they act like family. Our wives are best friends. So it's really neat, and you don't ever want to coach -- I got to coach against him when he was at Indiana, and it wasn't a lot of fun. But you know if you're going to have to cross paths, this is the place to do it as opposed to the earlier stages."
"He said I was one of his best friends, I say best friend," Lemonis said. "He's the godparent of my kid and everything else. We have a huge Citadel group coming, so you can imagine all our teammates and everything will be a part of it, and it's a neat thing. I felt the pressure because he was in Omaha before we ever played our super regional game, so I was sitting there, man, I don't want to blow this. I'd love to go out there and be with one of my teammates. It's a neat thing."
McDonnell: "If I'd have said best friend I'd have had all the other pals in our group getting all over me, so I said one of my best friends."
Lemonis: "I'm just giving you a hard time."
Guys, the ballgame? College World Series? Anyone?
Both teams came through elimination threats in previous rounds. Both find themselves in this position because of a loss to Vanderbilt. Both have been good all season. Mississippi State came into the tournament as the No. 6 overall seed, Louisville the No. 7. Both teams have reached the 50-win plateau.
"We always say if we're going to play each other, we're not scheduling each other, I can tell you that, but if we play each other, we'd want it to be Omaha," Lemonis said. "We were just hoping we were in different brackets and in the last games. Obviously one of us will go home, but one of us will get to keep playing. But the reality is it's Mississippi State against Louisville, and Dan nor I get to swing a bat or hopefully him not steal a base or anything like that. It'll come down to the kids."
McDonnell will send Nick Bennett to the mound. He has plenty of postseason experience, and is 1-0 with a 2.35 ERA in a pair of appearances in this year’s tournament.
"Nick Bennett is a competitor," McDonnell said. "I mean, that's the thing, for him to be a freshman (in 2016) to be starting in the College World Series and be a weekend starter for the University of Louisville, I think guys love playing behind him because you know he's going to compete. He's not perfect. But man, he's going to compete.
"And what he did in the regional, he won Game 1, we got sent into the losers' bracket, and he demanded that ball on Monday. I mean, it was after the Sunday game, he came by the office, and then Sunday night he sent a text, and then Monday morning at breakfast he walked up to the office. I mean, he was adamant: Coach, give me the ball today."
So McDonnell likes his matchup, even if it is against his good friend.
"When a guy like that steps up and says, just give me the ball and I'll run out there and give you everything I've got, man, it lifts everybody else up," McDonnell said. "For me in the big picture, I'm so glad Nick Bennett gets to start here in Omaha, and Zeke Pinkham gets to catch him because those two guys have been a good tandem for three years now."
As for the coaches? They're ready for their players to be on center stage.
Their old coach at The Citadel, Fred Jordan, was asked by The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., what he’d like to see if the two should meet.
"I would hope it ends in a tie and a rainout," he said.
It's not going to end like that. But it will be a game neither coach ever forgets.
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