Weird superstitions, crazy traditions, LSU coach Paul Mainieri, wife Karen prepare for 10th opening day at LSU

Don’t expect Karen Mainieri to be in her seat for the national anthem.

That’s not how Paul Mainieri’s wife operates on opening day.

She’ll stroll into LSU’s season opener at Alex Box Stadium on Friday night – full of Mexican and margaritas – at her usual time.

“If I make the anthem,” Karen says, “the ushers will say, ‘Oh, you’re early.’

“I want to walk in and see the first pitch.”

Karen’s opening day superstitions – she and Paul refer to them as “traditions” – are nothing compared to her husband.

From their plush, four-bedroom home on Wednesday afternoon, Karen’s big yearly store run is behind her. On opening week, the Mainieri’s home must be stocked, something Karen has learned in 36 years of marriage to Paul.

Stocked with what exactly?

“Bottled water,” Karen says. “Deodorant.”

“Hush!” an embarrassed Paul playfully quips.

“Shampoo. Toilet paper,” Karen continues. “We’ve got to have so much stuff in the house it’s like we’re waiting for the apocalypse.”

Karen knows what to expect when Paul leaves the house each opening day morning, too. He turns to her and says, “This is the year.”

“It’s been the year once in 33 years,” Paul says laughing, referring to his solo national championship in 2009.

Paul arrives at his office around 8 a.m., opens a brand new box of purple Sharpie markers – the pen must be unused – and fills out his lineup card some eight hours ahead of schedule.

“I leave it on my desk and stare at it all day,” Paul says.

Lunch takes place around 11:30 a.m. This isn’t just an opening day “tradition.” Each Friday before a home series, Karen and Paul eat at Roberto’s, a restaurant south of Baton Rouge serving Louisiana cuisine. The restaurant reserves a table for the Mainieris, and the chef always has Paul’s favorite ready – the crab soup.

Back at the office by 1, Paul is in his uniform by 2 p.m. – a full three hours before he needs to be. He walks the field at Alex Box, “every inch of it,” he says, visualizing what might transpire that night.

Players begin arriving around that time, and batting practice begins soon after. Away from the field, Karen is eating Mexican and margaritas with the wives of Mainieri’s assistants – another opening day “tradition.”

The margaritas help the nerves, Karen admits.

“Opening day,” she said, “it’s like the start of a race. You’re at the start line waiting and anticipating.”

By the time she’s halfway through dinner, Paul, back in his office, has already handed the lineup card to an assistant. Paul must hand over the lineup card.

“You can’t grab it from his desk,” former assistant Javi Sanchez said laughing.

And then?

“Then,” Paul says, “it’s time to play ball.”

‘It’s crazy’

Paul Mainieri never opened the book on stocks that he purchased in 1987.

If coaching didn’t work out, the stock market was a backup plan. The book sat on the Mainieri’s coffee table for weeks.

“I just stared at it every day,” Paul said. “I didn’t really want to do it.”

These were rough times for the Mainieris.

Paul made $18,000 a year - up from his starting salary of $3,200 - as the head baseball coach for St. Thomas University, a tiny private Catholic school near Miami that issued two baseball scholarships. It was better than his previous job – an assistant high school football coach at Columbus High.

The most memorable thing about that gig: He coached Mike Shula, the former Alabama coach and son of legendary NFL coach Don Shula.

Karen, meanwhile, spent her days in the air as a flight attendant, when she wasn’t having kids. Karen and Paul’s first three children – 32-year-old Nicholas (Nick) and daughters Alexandria (Alex) and Samantha (Sam) – are each separated by about a year.

The Mainieris lived with Paul’s parents seven of the first nine years of their marriage in Miami.

“Every time we moved out and thought we could afford rent,” Karen says, “another baby would come.”

Four years into his job at St. Thomas, Paul applied for the head coaching job at Louisiana-Lafayette. He didn’t get it, then bought that stock book and delivered a message to his wife.

“That was one of the times in our marriage when Karen was discouraged about coaching,” Paul said. “I said, ‘If I don’t get another job next year, I’ll consider getting out.’”

That seems like crazy talk now.

Karen leans on a massive granite island in the Mainieris’ expansive kitchen. Sun rays shine into the home, bouncing off the couple’s pool, bordered by stones and palms in a fence-lined backyard.

They’ve now been at LSU for 10 years. They’ve won a national championship, five Southeastern Conference tournament titles, three SEC regular season championships and 415 total games.

“It’s crazy,” Karen says.

Jared Poché’s first pitch Friday against Cincinnati will be the 34th opening day in Mainieri’s head coaching career – six at St. Thomas, six at Air Force, 12 at Notre Dame and, now, 10 at LSU.

Walls in the Mainieris’ home are laden with artifacts from all four stops.

On one wall, there’s a saber encased in glass – a gift from an Air Force commander Paul coached there. On an opposite wall are two glass-enclosed keys – one to Baton Rouge and the other to the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Sprinkled throughout the house are reminders that Mainieri has led five teams to the College World Series: 2002 with Notre Dame and four here (2008, 2009, 2013 and 2015).

There are dozens of signed baseballs in a glass cabinet, a replica of the 2009 national championship trophy fits perfectly in the home’s entry way and a giant painting of the singer Mick Jagger hangs over the two-tier staircase.

Wait. What?

“He’s her favorite male in the world,” Paul says, gesturing to Karen. “She’d leave me in a heartbeat for Mick Jagger.”

Past the Mick Jagger painting, up the stairs and at the end of the hall is Paul’s baby – a dark, dropped-ceiling, cozy room with six leather recliners facing a 100-plus inch projection screen.

It’s his man cave.

“I watch all of the games here,” he said. “Away LSU football games, LSU basketball games.”

The Mainieris are a long, long way from those days of scrapping by in Miami. But that stock book is still lying around somewhere.

“Probably in a box,” Paul says.

‘I’m not ready to quit’

The Mainieris aren’t vacation people.

Paul and Karen claim they have vacationed twice in the 34 years that Paul has been a head baseball coach. Both of those trips came in the last three years – skiing in Colorado and beaching in Montego Bay.

The downtime for college baseball coaches begins in early December and ends around Jan. 1. For the Mainieri children, vacations were road trips with dad.

“Each kid got to pick a different trip,” Karen says.

So when will this coaching thing end so the Mainieris can travel around the world?

Not any time soon, Paul says.

Paul wants to coach eight more years at LSU, he reveals. He wants to retire as a 66-year-old coach having spent 18 seasons as the Tigers head man. And he expects to win two more national championships during that time, too.

Why 18?

“It’s a personal goal,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m close to retirement. I’m not ready to quit.”

After 42 years in the business in 2025, Paul says he’ll be ready. More specifically, he’ll be ready to become a TV analyst for college baseball and he’ll be ready to begin crossing off the bucket list.

He wants to visit the Grand Canyon, begin playing golf regularly and attend The Master’s Tournament. He wants to trip to a Major League Baseball game with his sons and travel to watch the Kentucky Derby.

“I think some coaches want to die on the field,” he said. “I don’t.”

Karen, seated next to her husband in the couple’s living room, glares toward him.

“That’s nice to hear,” she smiles.

Paul and Karen have plenty of similarities. They share mannerisms, say similar things and, even, laugh in the same way at times. They’re almost like a brother and sister.

Skip Bertman is told this. The former LSU baseball coach booms with laughter for a good 10 seconds.

“You’re right!” he yells.

“They have become two and one in the same,” said Sanchez, who spent seven years on Mainieri’s staff before leaving after the 2014 season.

“It’s cute, man.”

They do have their differences. Karen is a self-proclaimed free spirit. Relaxed, easy-going, carefree. Paul is uptight, at times. He’s always got a plan and a schedule, Karen says with a glance at her husband.

“So she’s saying I’m organized,” Paul snaps. “That’s what she’s saying.”

“He can’t let the day unfold,” Karen says. “He’s no fun on vacation.”

In that downtime in December, Paul often helps Karen with the laundry. Well, he doesn’t exactly help.

“He tells me how to do it,” Karen says.

This is one of the reasons why Paul has been so successful as a baseball coach, says Bertman. He’s an organized, workaholic. There are plenty more reasons.

Mainieri spends more time in individual meetings with his players – getting to know them, their strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes – than any coach Bertman has ever seen.

Mainieri “out-maneuvers” his fellow coaches on the field, too, Bertman says - whether it’s pitcher substitutions or swapping a DH.

Mainieri credits much of his success to his practice philosophy: Pressure players as much as possible. If you pressure them in practice, they’ll be prepared to face pressure during the game, he says.

It’s something he adopted from mentors like MLB big shots Jim Hendry and Tommy Lasorda, coaches like UNO’s Ron Maestri and Don Shula and his father, Demie Mainieri, a hall of fame former junior college baseball coach in Miami.

Paul watched Lou Holtz’s practices while at Notre Dame and watched Shula’s Dolphins practice while he spent time in Miami.

“I don’t expect them to be perfect,” Mainieri said, “but I put the pressure on them to perform perfectly.”

Paul and the Sharpie

Will Davis grabbed the purple marker and met the wrath of Paul Mainieri.

That’s when Davis learned of Mainieri’s superstition: He fills out the lineup card with a new, unused purple Sharpie before each game – not just opening night.

“I think I tried to take it before the game and he got on to me,” said Davis, a player and then assistant for Mainieri for the last decade before leaving LSU this year. “I almost cost us the game before the game started.”

Mainieri goes through 60-plus purple Sharpies a year. The coach keeps a hoard of markers in his desk.

“Dude. Boxes and boxes and boxes,” Sanchez laughs.

Mainieri tries to give each game’s purple pen to someone as a keepsake, and, yes, there’s an explanation behind this tradition, the coach claims.

“I preach to the players, regardless of the previous game, the next game is a new day. You have to forget about what happened yesterday. Yesterday’s pen is over with. We need a new pen today,” he said before breaking into a smile, “I keep Sharpie in business.”

Friday’s Sharpie will be his 580th in use as LSU’s coach – none more important than the one he used in that 11-4 win over Texas to win the 2009 national title.

Paul often wonders if his life would be different had he not won that national championship.

“I wonder,” he says, “if we’d still be here.”

The desire to win another is “unbearable,” Paul says.

Karen agrees.

“We’re hungry for it again,” she says.

Karen is a Louisiana girl, born and raised in Belle Chasse. But that didn’t mean she grew up around the game of baseball. Her first game came in 1976. She watched then-boyfriend Paul play for UNO against – guess who? – LSU.

The site of her first game: the old Alex Box Stadium.

Paul played left field that day. Karen heard the lineups boom over the speakers. Left field, she thought – where’s that?

She couldn’t even get the position name correct.

“I kept saying ‘Left out,’” she said.

“She came over to the dugout and asked, ‘Where’s left out?’” Paul recalls.

She knows all nine positions now – as Opening Day No. 34 creeps around the corner.

The boxes of Sharpies, ordered months ago, are in. Reservations are made for margaritas and Mexican. Roberto’s has the table ready.

And the Mainieris’ house is well stocked – almost. Karen forgot to buy liquid plumber, she remember during Wednesday’s interview. The couple’s shower is experiencing an off-and-on clog.

“I’ve got to go get some,” Karen says.

Paul shoots her a look.

“What?” she says. “I want to make sure you’re not standing in water on opening day morning.”

TOP-10 WINS AT LSU UNDER PAUL MAINIERI

- April 22, 2008: LSU wins 8-4 at Tulane, the first of a 23-game winning streak after a 23-16-1 start.

- June 9, 2008: LSU overwhelms UC Irvine 21-7 to vault the Tigers’ to the College World Series for the first time under Mainieri.

- May 24, 2009: LSU beats Vanderbilt 6-2 in the SEC tournament final, coming out of the loser’s bracket with five straight wins after an opening loss to the Commodores.

- June 6, 2009: LSU beats Rice 5-3 to sweep the NCAA super regional and return to Omaha.

- June 24, 2009: Staff ace Louis Coleman strikes out Texas’ Connor Rowe to seal an 11-4 win over Texas and clinch LSU’s sixth baseball national championship.

- May 20, 2012: LSU wins 3-2 in 10 innings on an RBI single by pinch-hitter Jackson Slaid to take the series and SEC regular-season title at South Carolina.

- May 26, 2013: In a showdown of No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the polls, LSU takes down SEC regular-season champ Vanderbilt 5-4 in 11 innings in the SEC tournament final.

- June 7, 2013: In an epic battle of ace pitchers, LSU’s Aaron Nola throws a complete-game two hitter to beat Oklahoma’s Jonathan Gray to win Game 1 of the Baton Rouge super regional en route to LSU’s third CWS trip under Mainieri.

- May 25, 2014: The Tigers top Florida 2-0 to win their fifth SEC tournament title under Mainieri in seven years.

- June 6, 2015: Senior Chris Sciambra hits a walk-off solo home run in the bottom of the ninth to beat UL-Lafayette 4-3 in Game 1 of the Baton Rouge super regional en route to LSU’s 17th CWS appearance.

Scott Rabalais

TOP-10 PLAYERS AT LSU UNDER PAUL MAINIERI

- Alex Bregman, SS: A two-time All-American, he hit .337 for his three-year career including .369 as a freshman.

- Louis Coleman, RHP: He returned for his senior season to win a national title in 2009 and closed out the win over Texas; 29-12 with a 3.99 career ERA.

- Blake Dean, OF: First-team All-American in 2008 hitting .353 with 20 HR and 73 RBI; hit .337 with 27 HRs, 119 RBIs in two seasons.

- Kevin Gausman, RHP: Went 17-8 with a 3.08 ERA in 2011-12, earning first-team All-American honors as a junior.

- Micah Gibbs, C: Hit .336 in his three-year career, including .388 in 2010 with 10 HRs and 60 RBIs.

- Mason Katz, 1B: A four-year letterman, hit .341 for his career including .370 in 2013 with 16 HRs and 70 RBIs.

- Alex Lange, RHP: Earned first-team and freshman All-American honors in 2015, going 12-0 with a 1.97 ERA and 131 strikeouts in 114 innings.

- Mikie Mahtook, OF: Had a career average of .344, hitting .383 as a junior in 2011 with 14 HRs and 56 RBIs.

- Aaron Nola, RHP: Went 30-6 in his three seasons with a 2.09 career ERA and 345 strikeouts, all ranking in the top five in LSU history.

- Raph Rhymes, OF: Flirted with hitting .500 in 2012 before hitting a school-record .431 to earn SEC player of the year honors.

Scott Rabalais

Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @RossDellenger.

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