February 13, 2020 8:34:00 PM
Ben Portnoy - [email protected]
STARKVILLE -- Chris Lemonis knew the time was right.
Having spent the better part of two weeks speaking with Mississippi State Athletic Director John Cohen regarding the Bulldogs' opening for a head baseball coach, Lemonis -- then the head coach at Indiana -- took Cohen up on his offer.
Accepting the job without visiting Starkville -- the same strategy he employed when he left The Citadel to become an assistant coach at Louisville under former college teammate Dan McDonnell -- Lemonis was introduced as the 18th coach in school history on June 26, 2018.
"At Indiana, I had spoken with a lot of schools but I had no interest in leaving," Lemonis told The Dispatch Thursday. "It had to be a special place to get me to leave and I had a prior relationship with John (Cohen) because he was a college coach and was a little more laid back than talking to an (athletic director), so it was a pretty simple process."
Now entering his second season leading the Bulldogs, Lemonis' squad opens the 2020 season at 1 p.m. Friday against a Wright State team led by a second-year head coach of its own in former minor leaguer Alex Sogard.
And while Sogard and Lemonis have never served on the same staff, or even coached in the same league, it was Lemonis' leap of faith to leave Bloomington for Starkville and ensuing coaching searches at Indiana and Wright State that have set the coaching scene for Friday's season opener at Dudy Noble Field.
"That's how it is," Lemonis said of the interconnections of the college baseball coaching carousel. "It's pretty cool."
Foundation of a friendship
Lying restlessly in his bed, Jeff Mercer snagged his cell phone from the night stand and unlocked the screen.
Having just been named the head coach at Wright State following Greg Lovelady's departure to Central Florida, Mercer was drowning in work as he assumed the lead role at the school he'd earned Horizon League Player of the Year honors at and led to an appearance in the 2009 Fort Worth Regional.
Looking to round out his staff during the summer of 2016, Mercer recalled an email from Sogard from days earlier.
Just concluding a six-year minor league career in which he bounced between 10 teams in 10 different states, reaching as high as Triple-A, the former Oregon State and North Carolina State standout was searching for a post-baseball career in coaching.
Seeking any opportunity he could find, Sogard said he sent messages to every coach in the country. A few answered. Even fewer had jobs available -- including Mercer.
Admittedly a sporadic emailer at-best, Mercer was unsure why Sogard's caught his eye. Regardless, he responded -- noting he'd be in touch if he heard of any openings.
Suddenly in need of an assistant coach, Mercer fired off a 3 a.m. email to Sogard asking if he'd be interested in joining his staff at Wright State. One hour later, Sogard responded in the affirmative.
"We talked on the phone and kind of hit it off and the rest is history a little bit," he told The Dispatch.
With Mercer at the helm and Sogard helping to guide the ship, the Raiders compiled a 77-36 record in the pair's two seasons at Wright State -- including an appearance in the NCAA tournament in 2018.
"I definitely lucked out in that he saw my email and the timing of it," Sogard continued. "I'm obviously very fortunate coming from being a player to coaching at a really good program."
Back home in Indiana
While Mercer had helped maintain the trajectory Lovelady and his predecessor, Rob Cooper -- now the head coach at Penn State -- had established at Wright State, his success led to ample opportunities at the Power Five level, most notably from his home state school.
A Bargersville, Indiana native, Mercer's father was an assistant baseball coach at IU between 1988 and 1989 and was founding member of the Indiana Bulls -- one of the state's most prolific travel baseball programs.
With Lemonis off to MSU following the Bulldogs' run to the 2018 College World Series, Sogard saw the opening in Bloomington and asked Mercer if he was aware of it. He was -- though he wondered at just 32-years-old if the Hoosier brass would search for a more experienced replacement given Lemonis had spent 19 years as a college assistant before taking the job at IU.
Instead, Mercer received a number of texts and calls from industry insiders gauging his interest. A call from Scott Joraanstad, Indiana's Senior Associate Athletic Director for Business Operations, followed. But it wasn't that simple.
Back in Dayton, Mercer's wife Stephanie, then 31 weeks pregnant, had been admitted to Miami Valley Hospital. Following two weeks of monitoring from doctors, the couple's first child, Grady, was delivered on June 20, 2018, weighing just under four pounds and roughly seven weeks premature.
"I was quickly given a dose of reality," Mercer told The Dispatch. "So as we went through that I just tried to be supportive of my wife and my family."
In the midst of Grady and Stephanie's hospital stay, Mercer bounced between Dayton and Bloomington to meet with Indiana's senior athletic department officials. Interviewing with IU Athletic Director Fred Glass, Deputy Director of Athletics Scott Dolson and Joraanstad, Mercer laid out his vision for the program -- though he quipped his recent run of days in the hospital left him resume-less in the lead up to his meeting.
Following the meetings, Mercer was offered the job. He accepted. One day later, Grady was released from the NICU. Heading back to Ohio, Mercer picked up Stephanie and their newborn son and began the move to Indiana.
Six days after Lemonis was introduced in Starkville, Mercer was officially named his replacement on July 2, 2018.
"A lot of times when stressful situations happen we go into fight or flight and we just have to settle down and put together a plan and attack the plan one piece at a time," he said. "And that's kind of how I did it -- by day I took care of my family and then by night put together a plan that I thought would be successful at Indiana."
With Lemonis taking over in Starkville and Mercer indoctrinated in Bloomington soon thereafter, Wright State Athletic Director Bob Grant sought a quick replacement.
Having dealt with the losses of Lovelady and Mercer in a three-year span, Grant looked in-house to replace his latest coach that had moved onto a larger scale job.
Speaking with Sogard, Grant gauged his interest in the position. Naturally, Sogard was drawn to it.
Just two years after sending emails to college coaches nationwide in search of work, and four days removed from Mercer's introduction at IU, the one-time sojourning minor leaguer was named the head coach of the Raiders ahead of the 2019 season.
"I kind of forget all the other details that went along with it but very fortunate that he asked me and I don't think I necessarily deserved it at all," Sogard joked of his inexperience. "But my goal is to love on these guys and give them the best possible experience they can get."
"When you're as talented as Alex is there was no question he was going to be able to shape his craft as a coach," Mercer added.
Completing the circle
In the time since his hiring, Lemonis led the Bulldogs to a second-straight trip to Omaha, Nebraska and the College World Series in 2019 and finds his latest squad ranked in the top 10 of all six major college baseball publications' preseason polls this year.
As for Mercer and Sogard, the pair notched 37 and 42 wins in their inaugural campaigns at Indiana and Wright State, respectively. Mercer was even named the 2019 Big Ten Coach of the Year as he guided the Hoosiers to a No. 2 seed in the Louisville Regional and a regular season conference championship.
"I wanted to make sure there are people there that were going to treat the players and the program with the respect that I would have as an alumni," Mercer said in reference to Sogard. "And so to watch him, to know that he's investing himself into that job and that he cares about it the way it should be cared about puts me at ease knowing that those players that I care a lot about are in great hands and will continue to have a lot of success."
Friday, Lemonis and Sogard will meet on the field for the first time in their coaching careers -- though they're both aware of their backdoor connection.
Three-hundred-and-thirteen miles southwest, Mercer's Hoosiers are slated to take on LSU in Baton Rouge -- a trip Lemonis told The Dispatch will allow a handful of Hoosier fans to stop through Starkville on their way home to the frosty Midwest to visit with he and a handful of his former Indiana staffers that now work at MSU for next week's game against Samford.
And while Starkville is vastly different from Dayton or Bloomington, it's now the center of a coaching carousel cycle that has bred success at three different programs from three different conferences separated by, at minimum, a three-hour drive with no discernable prior connections.
"Our motto is 'If you want to get better you've got to play the best,'" Sogard said of his team's trek below the Mason-Dixon line for this weekend's series. "If you want to be good and want an opportunity to play in the postseason you've got to play against those teams and definitely excited to get down there."
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.