We know the rap sheet by heart. Cold weather. Small stadium. Scant tradition. Small state. It’s no secret that in the rough-and-tumble world of SEC baseball, Kentucky is one of the toughest jobs in the entire conference.
If that’s the case, however, UK’s newest head baseball coach, Nick Mingione (pronounced MEN-gee-own) knows a thing or twelve about overcoming obstacles.
Back when he was a young coach at Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach, Fla., Mingione gave lessons to a local baseball team in exchange for free rent at the coach’s apartment complex. When he first came to Kentucky 11 years ago as an assistant under John Cohen, everything Mingione owned, everything, was piled into the car he drove from Florida.
He didn’t have a place to stay in Lexington, and Cohen’s office didn’t have a couch, so early on Mingione would spend the night in the baseball locker room.
His first six years in coaching, Mingione made a grand total of $36,000 without health benefits or insurance.
“I learned a long time ago not to focus on what you don’t have,” said the 37-year-old Mingione on Tuesday as he was introduced by UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart.
Mingione has no head coaching experience. After one year as an assistant high school coach and four years as an assistant small college coach in Florida, Mingione has spent 10 of the last 11 years — two at UK, interrupted by a one-year detour at Western Carolina, before eight more at Mississippi State — as an assistant to Cohen.
What he does have is the reputation of being an around-the-clock worker and recruiter with the energetic, upbeat personality needed to sell a baseball program to a fan base traditionally focused on basketball first and then football.
That’s what Cohen did during his five-year stay at UK before leaving for his alma mater in 2009. Under Cohen, Kentucky did the impossible, won the SEC title in 2006, earned two NCAA Tournament berths and, maybe best of all, persuaded the Big Blue Nation to take college baseball a little more seriously.
Mingione was here for two of those years, including the conference title season. “I’ll never forget being in Athens, Ga., in 2006 watching our guys dog pile and winning the Southeastern Conference championship,” Mingione said Tuesday. “I will never forget that. It’s our goal to make sure that happens again.”
That was a decade ago, however. Under Cohen’s successor, Gary Henderson, Kentucky earned two more NCAA Tourney berths in eight seasons, but could never quite take that next step, be it results on the field or, well, building a new field.
On Tuesday, Barnhart all but promised that a new baseball stadium, long in the planning stages, is just around the corner. A $45 million facility, to be built next to the soccer stadium, is in the final design stage and needs only the approval of UK’s trustees in August. Once that box is checked, construction will take 16 months before the first pitch in the new park.
Mingione can’t wait that long, of course. On the plane from Starkville, he signed a five-year, $2.375 million contract before incentives. He has to assemble a coaching staff. He needs to talk to current UK players and recruits chosen in last week’s MLB Draft. He needs to recruit. He needs to re-acquaint himself with the place.
“When you talk about this place, you pour your heart and soul into a place, you spend a ton of time, it means a lot to you,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons this place means a lot to me.”
Then comes the hard part — trying to succeed in a hard ball league.
“We’ve done it before. The goal is to do it again,” Mingione said. “Every job has its challenges, right? But this is the place I wanted to be at because I believe in my heart we can win here and we’re going to win here. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t have come.”
Nick Mingione coaching career
2001 Assistant Coach, Mariner High School
2002 Assistant Coach, Florida Gulf Coast
2003-05 Assistant Coach, Embry-Riddle
2006-07 Assistant Coach, Kentucky
2008 Assistant Coach/Recruiting Coordinator, Western Carolina
2009-2016 Assistant Coach/Recruiting Coordinator, Mississippi State
2017 Head Coach, Kentucky