Chris Lemonis was named the 2021 ABCA/ATEC NCAA Div. I National Coach of the Year after leading Mississippi State to a 50-18 record and its first-ever national title in a team sport. Lemonis’s winning percentage is better than .750 (114-37) in his first three years in Starkville, advancing to the College World Series in 2019 and 2021 (the event was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19). During that stretch, the Diamond Dogs have had 19 players selected in the MLB Draft, including a first rounder in each of the three past seasons.
Before Mississippi State, Lemonis was the head coach at Indiana and an assistant at Louisville and his alma mater, The Citadel, where he was a two-time All-Southern Conference performer and helped the Bulldogs advance to the 1990 College World Series.
Inside Pitch: So what’s it like to be a defending national champion in Starkville, Mississippi?
It's crazy, especially in this state, but it comes with winning and that's a good thing. If nobody wants to talk to you, you haven't played well. It was such a big moment for us, for our fans, for this state; everywhere you go in Starkville, somebody's patting you on the back or congratulating you, so that’s great. But the baseball's been the same once we're out on the field. When we get in between the lines––and I give our team a lot of credit for this––they've gotten after it.
IP: How about setting expectations with your team once you’ve already reached the pinnacle of the profession?
What we have to do is go out and try to be the best team that we can be and not compare ourselves to last year's team. Each year your team is built with its own identity, its own culture. We have a lot more attention on us now, but like I said, that’s what comes with winning. We have an amazing fan base and their excitement for this national championship has been nuts.
IP: Once some teams get to that peak, that drive and hunger is not quite as high as it used to be as a result of human nature. Have you identified any of those moments?
I had a preconceived awareness of that––it was my biggest fear. I spent the offseason talking to other coaches, guys like Pat Casey, asking them “how do you do it again?” Because I think we have a team that could do it again. Coach Casey had some great things to say about that, and we’ve spent some extra time working on it because we know that can happen.
One thing about our team is we have a bunch of guys back from last year, and that group’s draft year is here. It's their time. Our kids have worked even harder now that they have something else on the line in addition to the team success we’re talking about. I haven’t seen a drop off––they have worked like they normally work. We're a very blue collar, gritty type of program here at Mississippi State. We pull our trucks up to the field and play. Maybe we will see something different in the spring, but I really like what our kids have done this fall and where they're at as a group.
IP: What are the things that you’re looking for with recruiting? Have those foundations held true over time for you?
The COVID period was really tough because we were getting a lot of references, a lot of video. All four of [our coaches] have been recruiting coordinators, so it was tough not being able to put our eyes on guys and watch kids play. But we like very athletic players that compete. Ever since I was at The Citadel and with Dan McDonnell, I’ve always been attracted to those types of guys.
You’re not going to play in Omaha if you don’t play great defense, so you have to be able to defend, you have to be able to move. In those Regionals and Super Regionals, one play, one out is sometimes the difference in going to Omaha. Wherever you are, you have to find what’s right for your system. I don’t want everybody to look the same. Sometimes you play teams that have 17, 18 right-handed pitchers. I like a guy with a different slot, I want my share of left-handers, I want to be able to do some different things with our guys and show some different looks over a weekend.
IP: You could hand-pick 10 guys and it seems like you and anybody else is going to miss––for whatever reason––on a couple of them. Has that statement always held true for you? Can you put a finger on the reasons why those misses occur?
I think most of the misses occur because of mentality. And I don't think it's changed. Sometimes you get a kid and you know what they can do athletically, but when they get out there they don’t have the ability to compete. So you’re looking for that competitive nature, especially on the mound. That's one of the biggest things I look for here, because you have to play in front of such a big crowd.
In Landon Sims’ first outing of his career with the game on the line, he walked the bases loaded, and that's one of the tougher kids I've ever had. But you have to get used to it. Landon walked the bases loaded on a Friday, came back on Sunday and struck out on the side. It's a process you have to get used to, but I think mentality is the biggest piece.
IP: You’re at a type of program that can get really good walk-on players. How do you decide when enough is enough in terms of roster size?
The COVID year was really tough when it comes to that. Our roster got big––bigger than normal. We were putting up a travel list every week and leaving good players at home, because we had a lot of seniors coming back. But in our game, we’ve had so many great walk-on players here, just like anywhere. I was a walk-on myself at The Citadel a long time ago. Walk-ons are a huge part of our program.
We do get some high-profile high school players because of who we are, but I also love JUCO players. We have great JUCO baseball in Mississippi and all over the country. We had two JUCO pitchers help us win game two of the National Championship series, and two JUCO hitters put together the winning hit and stolen base against Texas to get us there. Those “JUCO Bandits” bring a special mentality too––they're not spoiled. They’ve come through it the hard way, and they bring a lot of that toughness to our ball club.
Having that depth is important, and the hardest part here right now is walk-ons is like you said; we turn down so many good players because of who we are and for us, we’re just trying to pick and get inside of our group. I guess it's a good problem to have, but it's just not easy. So I think it’s important to have a good blend of high-profile guys, JUCO players and walk-ons.
IP: What have you made of the transfer portal now that's been around for a couple years? Clearly you're able to get some mid-major guys that step in and contribute right away. But it works both ways, right?
It does. I like the transfer portal obviously with where we are, but I was at The Citadel when we had transfers; if a kid wanted to leave, he could leave. We deal a lot with graduate students right now, who may have spent four years at one university and had a great career and now they're getting an extra year to spend at an SEC school. I think that's pretty cool.
On the flip side, when I have kids leave, I like the fact that they don't have to sit out. I have kids at other schools, really good schools, that step in and start and are having a great experience. I know that sitting out a year protects schools a little bit, but it also restricts the kids who should be able to go out there and play somewhere else. That’s a positive.
IP: Is there a part of you that didn’t want to mess with a system that clearly already worked? Or have you identified this team as a new opportunity, a new team, and a clean slate?
We work within our system, we really challenge ourselves to keep adapting, keep moving forward, keep learning in this game. I've coached over 25 years, and I have had some spans where there wasn’t a lot of growth, to tell you the truth. And not just me personally, but the game. But right now our game––I don't know if it's social media, technology, analytics––but it’s blowing up. So you're trying to keep up with that, but you still have to value fundamentals of picking up a ground ball or throwing strikes. So we're trying to adapt and be better than we were last year; we’re trying to push the envelope. And we talk about that with our kids; if you stay the same, you're getting worse.
We like to think we're a little bit old school, but we use a lot of new things that are out there. At the end of the day, positive relationships are paramount, building relationships so we can establish trust and make changes and adjustments with our players.
IP: Has there been anything that you've been particularly intrigued with in terms of technology that you’re really diving into?
Well, first things first, I'm a hitting guy. But I go into the pitching lab and I watch bullpens and I listen and I'm amazed. It used to be, “hey man, that guy's throwing a bowling ball up there,” and now it's “here’s what makes it a bowling ball––that's a low spin rate.” It’s nothing more than what other people are using, but we have a phenomenal pitching coach in Scott Foxhall who uses all of that tech to game plan, call pitches, make our guys better. It's pretty amazing to me.
We really have two jobs when you bring that up. You have to gather the information, but then how do you process it and make players better with it? I think that's what we're still learning, that’s what we’re always chasing.
IP: Tell me about Coach Foxhall specifically; what makes him so good and what stood out to you in the process of hiring him?
What's funny is that Fox and I played at rival schools about five miles apart from each other. Then we both got out for a year and became recruiting coordinators, and we recruited against each other for a decade. We weren’t super close, but we had a relationship, we had respect for each other. Then we both went our own ways: I went to Louisville, he went to Auburn. As I went through the process of hiring a pitching coach and looked at what he’d done [at Auburn and NC State], he was a great fit. He's a little bit of old school, a little bit of new school. It's a very calm demeanor. I don't know if I've ever heard him raise his voice. And in this environment, there's so much pressure playing in front of giant crowds and with everything on the line and national TV, we can't be the ones creating the pressure as coaches. Fox has done an unbelievable job. Our pitchers respect him as a pitching coach, but I think they really enjoy the way they're coached. He adapts to all the kids in terms of what we feel is best; we’re not going to take something away from a guy that got him to us. We want him to still have his strengths.
IP: What’s it like having Ron Polk back in Starkville?
I have never met anyone who has his passion for the daily routine and just being around the players. He speaks all over the country, staying very active. But everybody loves him, I'm so glad he’s around. He's at most every practice, and he even does the radio for our games. And he always tells me “I haven’t ever questioned any of your decisions…yet