By Brett Hudson
STARKVILLE — Chris Lemonis lucked into playing for a college baseball legend. He took the only college baseball offer he had, from The Citadel, and played for a man who is responsible for the program’s only College World Series appearance and five of its 13 NCAA Tournament appearances.
The first words of out Chris Lemonis’ mouth when he relived playing for Chal Port: “Chal, he was mean, I’m not mean.”
The next: “Chal retired (before) my junior year and we were crushed.”
Playing for Chal Port was the beginning of the making of Chris Lemonis. His 24-year coaching education is a concise one: he learned from a legend (Port), coached under a man who also learned from Port (Fred Jordan) then worked for a man who shares some of those qualities (Dan McDonnell). From there, Lemonis spent four years at Indiana priming himself for a year one Omaha run at Mississippi State — and done so in the mold of the men that taught him.
“The thing that makes him special is the quality of person he is,” said Tony Skole, who played with Lemonis at The Citadel and now coaches their shared alma mater. “I think anybody that played with him, played for him or coached with him would say the same thing.”
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Chal Port’s players already had a tough existence: The Citadel’s full name is The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina. The daily rigors of a cadet are brutal, and those that doubled as members of Port’s baseball team were given no reprieve when it came time to practice or play.
In Lemonis’ case, that meant Port pushing him from bullpen catcher to three-year starter. It also meant Lemonis respecting the man that relentlessly challenged him. Lemonis recognizes things were different back then — there was more leash for coaches to be tougher — but the end result is one he still finds desirable and one he often achieves.
Cole Sturgeon is a great example.
Sturgeon arrived at Louisville as a two-time all-state player and a participant in the 2009 World Wood Bat Association 17U National Championship. He was so good that Louisville wanted him to both pitch and hit, which he did for all four years as a Cardinal.
Lemonis wasn’t one to babysit a two-way player through the difficulties of that task; if anything, he took the opposite approach.
“As a young kid, you see it as, ‘This guy is riding me all the time, he loves to get on me when I mess up.’ As a young player, it’s kind of a culture shock, but it helps you when you get older,” Sturgeon told Matt Wyatt Media. “He’s going to talk smack, he’s going to let you know if you mess up but he’s going to let you know if you’re on the right side of it, too.”
That was early in Lemonis’ tenure as an assistant at Louisville, and nearly a decade later he remains unchanged. That showed itself in the May 22 SEC Tournament game against LSU, the 17-inning marathon. Gunner Halter missed a crucial sacrifice bunt opportunity in the 16th inning and got an earful from Lemonis. He later circled back and told Halter to keep his head up; Halter walked the game off with a single in the 17th.
Yet, Lemonis only got two years of the Chal Port experience. Port coached the 1990 team to the College World Series, took the 1991 team to another Southern Conference title and handed the program over to Fred Jordan — who played for Port from 1976-1979. Richard Wieters, a former The Citadel player and father of St. Louis Cardinals catcher Matt Wieters, told The Post and Courier in 2012, “A Citadel player from back then is like one from now. They’ve all been taught the same way, the same things right from Coach Port to Fred.”
So after being directly taught by Port, Lemonis was then coached by and coached under Jordan, also heavily influenced by Port. Lemonis played for Jordan in 1992 and 1993 before coaching for him from 1995 to 2006.
“Both of those are cut from the same cloth: master motivators, very organized, great fundamental teachers of the game and they held their players accountable,” Skole said of Port and Jordan. “It was a simple recipe, but it works. I think that’s why. It’s not magic dust, it’s about rolling up your sleeves and getting to work.”
Lemonis tested the waters outside of Charleston, South Carolina, for the first time in 2007, when he joined McDonnell at Louisville. His players quickly found him to be what he was at The Citadel: reliant on hard work, but able to find joy in the grind.
Sturgeon described Lemonis as, “in your face, loud, energetic. He’s definitely the guy that’s going to try to pick things up if things are a little quiet or dead.”
By the end of it, Lemonis’ players generally appreciate the guy that relentlessly pushed them to make them better, and it’s no accident. Lemonis does not have the luxury of keeping up with his college coach — Port died in 2011 — but Sturgeon, who has since moved up to Triple-A in the Red Sox organization, is one of many former Lemonis players that still receives occasional text messages from his former coach, checking in and congratulating their progress.
“Obviously he’s busy and we’re all busy, but it’s always nice to hear from him. I just know that’s the type of person he is,” Lemonis said. “It was awesome to play for him and he definitely rubbed off on all of his, for sure.”
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Another quality of those that have been around Lemonis in his baseball education: they won.
The four Citadel teams Lemonis played on went a combined 147-78, won the SoCon regular season twice and the SoCon Tournament once. He went to the NCAA Tournament five more times an assistant coach at his alma mater, made three Omaha trips at Louisville and is responsible for three of Indiana’s eight NCAA Tournament appearances in just four seasons there.
As a player, Lemonis won with, “electric hands,” according to Skole.
“He had lightning in his hands, some of the quickest hands I’ve ever seen,” Skole said. “He could drive runs in, that’s the one thing Lemo could do as a player: he’s the guy you wanted up with runners in scoring position. Clutch player, great teammate, very selfless, very concerned with making the people around him better.
“I didn’t always hit in the middle of the lineup; Lemo always hit in the middle of the lineup. I know one thing, Lemo drove me in an awful lot.”
Lemonis was molded by winners and he continues to be a winner. When Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen talked to Lemonis’ former players in the hiring process, they were all blunt: he’s going to be a Southeastern Conference head coach one day, whether you hire him or not. He has always won and he is winning now — not that anyone that saw him on his way up the ladder is surprised.
Yes, Lemonis is winning at a different level now than he ever has previously. His three trips to Omaha as a Louisville assistant produced one combined win, and these Bulldogs have their sights set on far more than that. But Lemonis was molded to rise to this moment, and those that saw him then expect him to do it now.
“When you’re taking over a program that’s at the pinnacle, it’s not easy,” Skole said, “but he welcomes that challenge. He welcomes that pinnacle.”