Louisville baseball coach Dan McDonnell talks what makes best friend, MSU coach Chris Lemonis a champion

Nick Suss
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

On June 20, 2019, Mississippi State coach Chris Lemonis and Louisville coach Dan McDonnell met in the tunnel below TD Ameritrade Stadium in Omaha.

McDonnell's Cardinals had just eliminated Lemonis' Bulldogs from the College World Series. This wasn't just any elimination.

Lemonis and McDonnell have a three-decade long relationship. They played and coached together for more than a decade at The Citadel. Lemonis coached under McDonnell for eight years at Louisville. They were in each other's weddings. Their wives are just as close of friends as they are. 

McDonnell describes the relationship as having a brother and a best friend in one.

But that day in 2019, Lemonis and McDonnell had to meet under TD Ameritrade Stadium because Louisville's Drew Campbell took a 2-2 breaking ball up the middle to land a walk-off hit, knocking Lemonis and his Bulldogs out of championship contention.

Fast-forward almost exactly two years. It's June 26, 2021. Lemonis is in the same tunnel. McDonnell isn't there, so Lemonis takes out his phone and calls him. The symmetry was too beautiful not to.

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"He was in the tunnel after they beat Texas," McDonnell told the Clarion Ledger. "They win on a breaking ball walk-off hit. I just said I remembered just a few years ago I was hugging him in the hallway just as we eliminated them on a walk-off hit. Breaking ball over the middle of the plate you stay middle of the field. A couple years later, I'm not hugging him in the tunnel, but he's calling me and we're getting to converse over the phone."

McDonnell wasn't in the tunnel, but he was in Omaha. He and a few teammates and colleagues from their Citadel days gathered to watch Mississippi State win its first national championship thanks in some part to Lemonis' leadership.

The ordeal was a new one for McDonnell. McDonnell said he turned to his wife on the drive to the airport the morning after Mississippi State's win and told her he was experiencing a brand new feeling. He'd been to the College World Series once as a player and five times as a coach, but he'd never left following a win.

The experience was reinvigorating. Seeing his close friend achieve the ultimate goal in college coaching renewed McDonnell's drive to win the first baseball championship at Louisville. 

That doesn't mean the experience was surprising. McDonnell often preaches to his players the difference between having the nine best players on the field and being the best nine players on the field. It's not about individual talent or success. It's about winning as a whole.

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Mississippi State did that. The offense forced long at-bats, drew plenty of walks and came through with timely hits. The starting pitchers did their jobs, and when they didn't, the bullpen boasted a 2.89 ERA across seven College World Series games. The defense didn't make an error in Omaha.

"As a coach, it's very impressive," McDonnell said. "I know how difficult that is. When a team is playing like that, they make it look easy. The game is just not easy. It's such a difficult game. It just shows you that it's not about having the highest draft picks and the most talented players. It's about obviously having really good players. But it's about coming together and playing as a team."

McDonnell said there are three qualities he's always seen in Lemonis that allow him to be such a successful coach. First, there's how competitive he is. McDonnell says he thinks from the second Lemonis' feet touch the ground in the morning, he's trying to "win the day."

Second, there's Lemonis' intelligence. McDonnellsays college baseball coaches don't have many opportunities to show off how smart they are. But Lemonis has the sort of intelligence that bleeds naturally into conversation.

Finally, there's care. That's the biggest aspect. McDonnell says the two most important things a coach can do are be great to the game and be great to their program. He's seen Lemonis put that sort of care and attention into building programs at The Citadel and Louisville, and now he's seen it in Lemonis taking one of college baseball's most storied programs to a place it's never been before.

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"It's just joy. It's happiness," McDonnell said. "You're proud of him, but you're proud because you just know how hard he's worked. He's always been so gracious in his words to me, thanking me for what I've done for him. It's a mirror. It's a reflection. I always have to remind him we've helped each other out a lot in this journey."

Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or nsuss@gannett.com. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.