photo credit UK Athletics
If positivity equated to championships, Kentucky Baseball coach Nick Mingione would already have multiple rings on his fingers. The UK skipper, entering his fifth year at the helm, gushed forth with unbridled enthusiasm and confidence about his team in an exclusive appearance on Just The Cats this morning.
Just how can anybody be so positive? The native of Tarrytown, New York revealed that he went through some tough times growing up in poverty, but his family was always close. There were four kids altogether, and Nick would always try to be the peacemaker when conflicts arose.
“It’s one of my gifts—the gift of encouragement,” he admitted. “And I hope I’ll use the gift the Lord’s given me.”
Not everybody, however, can be as cheery and encouraging as Nick Mingione. Those of us covering the team are understandably a bit more guarded. If you remember, the former Kentucky assistant took over the Wildcat head coaching position in 2016 after spending eight seasons at Mississippi State under John Cohen. Here’s a quick reminder of what’s happened since then.
First Four Years at Kentucky
Right out of the gate, Mingione sent expectations into the stratosphere as the 2017 Wildcats won 43 games (two shy of a school record) and made it to the NCAA Tournament Super Regionals for the first time ever.
Mingione followed that up in 2018 with another strong team that was ranked for most of the season in the Top 25, ten of those weeks in the Top 10. As further proof of his success, 21 of his players in his first two years were selected in the Major League Baseball Draft—the most of any program in the country. In addition, the completion of the brand new $49-million Kentucky Proud Park had every Kentucky Baseball fan poised for a magical run of success.
But that success quickly evaporated. Inexplicably, the team took a dive in 2019, ending up with a losing record (26 – 29, 7 – 23 SEC) and missing out on not only the NCAA but also the SEC Tournament. Consequently, Mingione started 2020 with a little bit of warmth on his backside. Although not exactly a hot seat, the team was off to an 11 – 6 start and playing well before the Coronavirus called off the season.
So where does the team stand this year?
As expected, Mingione set expectations fairly high—but perhaps not in the way you might have anticipated. The challenges of Covid-19 and the tragic death of Ben Jordan seemed to have sharpened his perspective.
Dealing with Tragedy
“It’s been really hard,” Mingione admitted, when asked about losing a player. “There have been a lot of people, including myself, who are hurting. That pain is not going to go away. For me, I’ve never been through this. I’ve never lost a player or a teammate. So just going through this for the first time. Lord willing, I’ll never have to do this again.”
As a leader, Mingione has worked responsibly and intentionally to deal with the hurt and healing. He’s met one-on-one with every one of his players. He wants them to understand that everyone grieves differently—that there’s a bunch of different phases of grief, and not everybody hits every one of those phases in the same way.
“I just want to allow the guys their space to handle it the way they feel necessary,” Mingione explained. “The thing that has helped me the most is just being around the guys—just sharing all the great stories about Ben. To hear what kind of great practical joker he was. And hear some of the ways he would just rag the guys and get on to them. Just sharing the great stories and what a great human being he was and how he was loved by so many.”
This Team is Close
Dealing with unfathomable tragedy can draw a team closer. According to Mingione, this team has always had a special affinity for one another.
“This group really cares about each other,” Mingione continued. “It’s remarkable. With everything that’s happened with Ben, they’ll have somebody to play for. But not to use that situation to excel on the field by any means. Even prior to everything that happened with Ben, this team really cared about each other. We don’t have cliques.”
Caring about each other is great, but how many ball games can that win you? Kentucky’s schedule this year is brutal. It’s a 30-game regular season with 24 ranked opponents looking to take you down. Remember, you’re playing in the SEC, where baseball’s popularity often rivals that of football.
“I’ve just come to expect it,” Mingione said, when asked about the killer schedule. “That’s why you come here. You play in the greatest league in America. The Road to Omaha goes through the SEC.”
Hmmm, It just means more, right Coach?
This Team has Talent
In spite of the impossible schedule, the 2021 Kentucky team has enough talented players to be relevant and successful. John Rhodes leads the team as a Division I Preseason All-American.
“This guy is a leader,” Mingione bragged, when asked about his star outfielder. “He has a burning desire to be great. He’s helped bring a lot of guys with him, from his work ethic, from his coachability. He’s wired different. You don’t get to coach a lot of guys like this.”
Last year’s National Co-Freshman of the Year and his talented supporting cast gives Mingione the ability to use a lot of players, to move guys around, and give them all sorts of opportunities to excel. It’ll be interesting to see how they settle into their roles.
“Especially from the pitching end—we have a little more depth than what we’ve had in years past,” Mingione emphasized. “So to be able to move those guys around and give them the innings and the pieces and the batters they deserve. It’ll be fun to watch. It’ll be a close-knit team and a team that’ll be able to use a bunch of different pieces—especially early—to find the right combination of guys.”
As far as the ‘Rona is concerned, Mingione has been hunkering down like the rest of us. He’s been staying at home, trying to reflect, and trying to make the most of a difficult situation.
“This quarantine was good for me,” he confessed. “It was like a reset. When in your career, do you ever just get a pause? I had a chance to connect with a lot of our alumni, and friends, and fans.”
He also got time to spend some precious time at home with family.
“My wife told me, ‘Nick, we’ve had dinner together a hundred nights in a row.’ That’s never happened.”
Words of Wisdom
Nick Mingione is known for quotes, and this interview was no different. He ended this one with encouraging words of wisdom for John Calipari and anyone else who was listening and might be struggling.
“Stay in the present and focus at the task at hand,” Mingione advised. “If you’re depressed, you’re living in the past. If you have anxiety, you’re living in the future. And if you’re at peace, you’re living in the present.”
Here’s hoping Coach Mingione can fully live in the present—to enjoy the peace and prosperity of the upcoming baseball season. A trip to Omaha—Lord willing—would be a fitting testament to an “encourager extraordinaire.”