Passion Guides UK’s Mingione

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — A song blares out from the walls of Nick Mingione’s office during a mid-morning in April. Mingione slumps in his chair and stares at his phone while “Fearless” by Jasmine Murray rings throughout the room.

The catchy Christian Pop song is possibly the most important one in his life right now.

“Fear comes from lack of faith,” he said. “I know who my creator is. I know who my Lord and Savior is. I don’t want to be (fearful). I don’t want to be scared of this or that.”

But the song also connects to him as a coach. Mingione, who is already enjoying the best rookie season of any coach in Kentucky baseball history, didn’t have a fear when he took his dream job in Lexington last summer. His only concern rested with what he didn’t know.

Mingione recites a line from the song. “Bring on the unknown.”

“When you go into a new position, you just don’t know,” Mingione said. “You don’t know how your players are going to react, you don’t know how the coaches are going to react, you don’t know how the administration is going to react, you don’t know how anybody is going to react. But it’s like welcoming it. Bring on the unknown.”

He hasn’t yet shared the song with his team. After all, they haven’t needed it. The Wildcats are one of the best teams in the country with a record of 33-16 and in the thick of a tight SEC race going into the season’s final stretch. With some luck, Kentucky could capture its first ever national seed and host a regional for just the second time in program history.

Mingione, known for years in college baseball circles for his exuberant personality, later sits up in his chair and smiles.

“I just love doing things that have never been done before.”

He picked the right school if that’s the case. Kentucky baseball’s history is an inglorious one. The Wildcats are the only team in the Southeastern Conference to have never advanced to a super regional, let alone Omaha for the College World Series. But Mingione’s energy and passion for the game led him back to Lexington nearly 10 years after his short stint as a volunteer assistant under John Cohen in 2006 and 2007. The Wildcats won their first—and only—SEC championship in 2006.

“When I got here, I just thought we were supposed to win the SEC,” Mingione said. “Excuse me for my ignorance, but I didn’t know. I knew Kentucky had never won it, but I just thought that’s what you were supposed to do.”

Maybe it’s not surprising then that Mingione has taken a veteran group of players— nearly all of whom have played significant roles on average teams the past two years—and made them truly believe Omaha was their final destination.

“I’m talking about no one has ever done it before,” Mingione said. “I cannot tell you how that makes me feel. I want to do things that have never been done before.”

Work Ethic From The Start

There’s a story from Mingione’s time as a player at Embry-Riddle, a small NAIA college in Florida, that captures how important energy is to the 38-year-old. Todd Guilliams, an assistant at Embry-Riddle, said it happened when the Eagles were playing one of the worst teams in their conference.

“No one was there, nobody cared,” Guilliams, now an assistant at Kentucky, said. “He’s literally like ‘you’ve gotta get down and dirty!’”

Mingione wasn’t happy with how his team was playing, so he reached down, grabbed a handful of dirt and stuffed it into his mouth. Embry-Riddle came back and won the game. Mingione, however, wound up in the hospital. The doctors never said for sure the dirt caused the infection, but it’s unlikely the timing was a coincidence.

“I guess there’s all kinds of bacteria in that dirt and all that,” Guilliams said. “So he lost a bunch of weight and was in and out of the hospital. But that was Nick. I’ve seen him climb fences, put a mask on, hit his face in the thing. All because he just loved it and he wanted to win.”

While Mingione’s teammates dreamed of playing professional baseball, he dreamed of being a college coach. Maybe it was a little strange to Mingione’s teammates when he would hop in a van with his coaches and scout a local junior college or high school game when Embry-Riddle had a day off. He was an easy target for teammates when they saw him writing things he’d learned from coaches after every practice  on an index card

“All the players I used to live with used to be like ‘Dude, why are you doing that?’ And I said ‘because I’m going to be a coach one day,” Mingione said. “I don’t want to forget any of this.”

Coaching is all Mingione has ever wanted to do. When Embry-Riddle reached the College World Series in 1999, rather than hang out at the hotel with his teammates, Mingione went to the field to scout the other teams in the tournament. In the stands with his coaches, Mingione kept a chart and watched as the other teams played.

Nick Mingione’s passion and personality has guided his path. (UK photo)

“He was incredibly observant,” Guilliams recalled. “He asked questions and paid attention. He loved it.”

Still, the start of a baseball coaching career can be difficult, especially at a small school like Embry-Riddle. Greg Guilliams, the head coach of the team and one of Mingione’s closest mentors, made $10,000 a year while his younger brother, Todd, made $1,500. When Mingione decided two years after graduating that returning to Embry-Riddle was the plan God made for him, he called the Gulliams brothers and asked if he could come back as a volunteer assistant.

“I wanted to go back and grow,” Mingione said. “This whole time I just knew. I had prayed about what I should do and where I should go when I was back at Cape Coral. I was basically led back to go to Daytona. That’s why I went. It was just a total leap of faith.”

Mingione had grown close with the Guilliams during his four years as a player at Embry-Riddle. Greg and Todd, both strong in their faith, welcomed Mingione back into the program but told him they had little to offer in terms of compensation.

Through the first six seasons of his college coaching career, Mingione lived without health insurance and racked up an income of $36,000 total. Not a year, but over six years. Mingione offered private hitting lessons at night to kids on a local travel team to make money and slept on Todd’s couch to offset the cost of living.

“(Todd’s) wife Julie would bring out sheets and pillows every night for me,” Mingione said. “I remember every morning, getting up and folding those and putting those away. I remember reading box scores on Coach Todd’s kitchen table when we were trying to figure out spray charts on hitters. We used to do our scouting reports for our opponents at his kitchen table.”

Mingione eventually learned one of the dads from the team owned rental property. An idea popped into his head: “Instead of him paying me to practice the teams, how about I just work my rent off?”

Thus ended the days of staying on Todd Guilliams’ couch. But Mingione had nothing of his own to move into his apartment. Everything he ended up with—a bed, dresser, even silverware—was given to him by people in the athletic department. Mingione, who grew up poor during his childhood in New York and Florida, never had a car until he was given one his senior year of college.

Years later when Mingione accepted the head coaching position at Kentucky, a staffer in the Mississippi State business department told Mingione’s wife, Christen, that Nick was the only coach he knew of at MSU who didn’t need help moving his belongings to Starkville. Mingione owned so little that everything he had fit into his Ford Escort.

Kentucky Close To Heart

Christen Mingione remembers a time in 2011 when she sat on the couch with Nick in their 730-square foot condo in Starkville. They were discussing the dreams and aspirations they both had for their lives.

She was a Mississippi State graduate with a degree in public policy and administration. In her eyes, she was going to change the world on Capitol Hill, and maybe she would have if she hadn’t shown up to a ‘Hand and Foot’ card game in 2009 with members of the Mississippi State athletic department. Unbeknownst to Christen and Nick, they were being set up to meet.

“We were both single and very stubborn and if someone knew we were going to set each other up, we would’ve never gone.” Nick Mingione said with a laugh.

Both were entrenched in their careers; Christen worked in finance for Mississippi State and Nick was on his way to being one of the top recruiters and assistant coaches in the country. No matter how many times Nelle Cohen, wife of Mississippi State athletic director and former baseball coach John Cohen, told Nick he’d find his wife in Starkville, he refused to believe it.

Nick Mingione listed UK as his dream job as a young coach. (UK)

“No, there’s no way I’m meeting my wife in Starkville, Mississippi,” Mingione said. “I’m coming here to be a baseball coach.”

But God’s plan, as they said, was much bigger than their own. They fell in love and married soon after. Back on the couch, Nick told Christen his dream.

“Christen, I want to be the head coach at the University of Kentucky,” Christen remembers Nick saying. “I truly believe we can win here. I think I want to be the head coach at the University of Kentucky.”

When he arrived in Lexington in the summer of 2005, he’d never been to Kentucky and didn’t know anyone in the state outside of Cohen. But a peace came over him when he drove into the state and saw the beautiful grass that Kentucky is famous for. He drove straight to Cliff Hagan Stadium and admired it.

“At that point, I just felt comfortable,” Mingione said. “I can’t explain it. I felt like, man, this is really cool. I felt like I was at home. I cannot explain it. Maybe just because I had prayed about it and I thought it was the Lord’s way of giving me peace. ‘This is where you’re supposed to be.’”

It was common for Christen to travel with Mississippi State to road games, but the only place Nick specifically asked her to come was Kentucky. Those trips, Christen said, were always enjoyable for her. So last summer when Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart called Mingione regarding the head coaching position at the school, both had considerable interest.

“I actually expressed to (Barnhart) when we spoke how much this job meant to me and how bad I wanted it,” Mingione said. “I made that really clear to him because that was the truth.”

Nick and Christen prayed a lot during the weeks the position was open. Most importantly, they wanted to be where God wanted them but they also wanted to be around good people. Eventually, Barnhart called Mingione and told him the position was his if he wanted it. Nick told Barnhart he would never accept the job without talking to Christen first, but it wasn’t a hard decision for either of them.

With tears in his eyes, Mingione called Barnhart and told him he was coming back to Lexington.

Family Means Everything

It is nearly lunch time when Christen and their two-year-old son, Reeves, enter Nick’s office. Family, second to their faith, is the most important thing in their lives. The family atmosphere so many coaches preach about in college athletics isn’t lip service at Kentucky. After every win, Reeves can be seen in his Kentucky baseball cap with his dad in the dugout celebrating the victory. Besides Guilliams, whose kids are older, the other coaches on the staff have toddlers as well. They run around on the field after the game, travel on the bus and hangout in the dugout.

“Any time we can all be together and have our families together, it’s really important to us,” Christen Mingione said. “None of us will probably have a five o’clock dinner with our family. We keep somewhat non-traditional hours but it works for us. When you see the families down there, that’s something that’s really important to Nick and I personally. That transcends to our team and to our coaches’ families.”

It extends to the players as well. About 15 minutes before Kentucky’s series opener against South Carolina a few weeks ago, Mingione found out Greg Guilliams’ wife, Amy, had passed away.

The memories came rushing back to him as he gathered the team in the outfield. When he coached at Embry-Riddle, Mingione dressed up as Captain Feathersword, a character from the Wiggles, for Guilliams’ son on his birthday. He had spent so much time with the Guilliams’ and valued their relationship closely. Before the game, he opened up to his team the same way he would his own family.

“I was hurting,” Mingione said. “This was really hard for me. I was in tears before the game. I told them ‘Guys, I’m really hurting. This is a hard day for me. My coach in college, his wife just passed away. She’s not with us anymore. But I want you to know we’re a family, and man I’m hurting.’”

He challenged his players to give them everything they had that night. In the end, Kentucky had its best game of the season, defeating the Gamecocks 19-1 in Columbia of all places.

“We picked him up,” first baseman Evan White said. “It was tough not having Coach Guilliams there because he’s such a big part of our team. We missed him. But it felt good to pick him and Coach Mingione up and say we gave it our all when they were in a tough spot.”

When he was hurting the most, Mingione was fearless in showing his true emotions in front of his team. His team has seen him in an array of emotions; they’ve seen his sadness, his hurt, his anger and his joy.

Mingione has an infectious personality. He bounces around in the dugout during games and has his players feed off his emotion. It is this approach, one filled with valuing relationships and energy, that has put Kentucky in the position it sits in now. Several weeks still remain in the season, but the Wildcats are in a good position to knock down barriers that have been holding them back for decades.

Todd Guilliams, who has known Mingione longer than anyone else in Lexington, views Mingione from a different perspective than most. He remembers Mingione as the greatest teammate he’s ever coached. He remembers Mingione sitting in the back of the van as a young coach, memorizing every name on a roster full of players. He sees him now as a man who loves God, his family, his coaches and his players. The Nick Mingione he knows is the same man he’s always known.

“People ask, ‘is he going to be like that for the rest of his life?” Guilliams said. “You’re like ‘yeah, he is.’”

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