In the Dugout with UK’s Nick Mingione

In the Dugout with UK’s Nick Mingione

Kentucky's baseball coach talks magical season, family, vision for the program and connecting with the Big Blue Nation.

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Inside Cliff Hagan Stadium, under the bright blue sky, the grass is as green as it has ever been. Baseball practice is wrapping up. Players are jovial but focused as they trot off the field, gloves in hand and the brims of their caps hiding their eyes but not their smiles. It feels nostalgic and a scene reminiscent of childhood days of having a catch (and having fun).

One man in black and blue Kentucky gear walks alongside the players while delivering instructions. He talks with the grounds crew as they clean up the field before walking over to sit in the dugout.

This is Kentucky head coach Nick Mingione.

Coach Mingione on the cover of AceThe 39-year old coach and New York native has his team ranked No. 7 in the nation and hoping to build off an incredible 2017 campaign that saw Mingione, in his first year, lead the Wildcats to the NCAA super regional, the first ever in the program’s history.

“Last year, we had this magical season and people ask me, ‘You didn’t hardly recruit any of these players, how was that even possible?’ The easiest way I can sum it up is, through love and accountability,” Mingione said. “We’ve loved our players but we’ve also held them accountable. Everything that our program is built upon is number one, our family.

Having a family atmosphere is the most important piece to our baseball program and with that, there’s a lot of different layers. You have to talk about trust. You have to talk about honesty. You got to talk about brutal honesty. The next thing is, winning. It’s really important for our guys to not only win at baseball but in all areas of their life. The third piece is the development piece. They have to come here and be better than they were when they got here. Those three areas of development are student, person, and player.”

After assistant coaching stints with Florida Gulf Coast and his alma mater Embry-Riddle, Mingione’s first experience in the Bluegrass would come in 2005 after a phone call with then Kentucky head coach John Cohen.

Photo by Elliott Hess | UK Athletics

While in Lewiston, Idaho preparing for the national championship with Embry-Riddle, Mingione got a call from Cohen who wanted to know how fast he could come to Lexington. He told Cohen that they were going to leave Idaho the next day and then he would need two days in Daytona before he could get here.

Before he fully committed to the job offer, he asked if it was okay to attend a mission trip that was planned for Latvia that summer. Cohen didn’t hesitate in agreeing to it. According to Mingione, if he would’ve said no, he wouldn’t have understood who Mingione was and what was important to him.

Without ever seeing the University of Kentucky, Mingione was on his way to join the Wildcats. It was a moment that is still fresh in his mind even today and would also set the stage for an eventual head coaching position.

Lexington’s bluegrass made an impression.

“I came straight to the baseball field. It was the greenest grass I’ve ever seen. I remember rolling up here that summer day and looking at the green grass and looking through the gate, going, ‘Wow! This is my new home.’  We had this magical season and we won the SEC for the first time ever and I just remember thinking, ‘I could be the head coach here one day and I want to be the head coach here one day,’” Mingione said.

“My wife will tell you, from the first time I ever met her, she asked me, ‘Do you want to do this coaching thing for the rest of your life?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I do. I’m actually going to be the head coach of Kentucky one day, and sure enough, here I am.”

Mingione’s faith and confidence of what the future held is both profound and admirable. Then again, his faith is at the very core of his identity. Even from the days of sleeping on couches in locker rooms as a volunteer assistant, he was faithful, and he isn’t shy about it.

“That’s the most important part of my life. I truly believe that is the foundation of my house and when you try to get to the core of what’s inside me, that’s the most important part of my life,” Mingione said. “When that part is in order, everything else is in order. All of a sudden, I’m the best husband I need to be. I’m the best dad I need to be. I’m the best coach I need to be. It starts with my faith. That is the foundation of who I am.”

 

With the Kentucky head coach, what you see is what you get. It’s genuine and in sports, that isn’t always the case. He’s animated on the field and in sharing his passion for his faith and his family. And as much as he loves baseball, it pales in comparison to when he talks about his wife Christen and three-year old son Reeves.

It was in Starkville, Mississippi where Mingione was an assistant at Mississippi State and where he would meet his future wife. Once a week, a core group of people from the athletic department and the community would get together to play a non-gambling card game called “Hand and Foot.”

They had a mutual friend but as Mingione tells it, they were both so stubborn that if they had known they were going to be set up, they would never agree to it. Christen was invited to a card game that night. As stated by Mingione, the smartest thing he’s ever done was letting her win, but Christen disputes that the win was legitimate.

Photo by Quinn Foster | UK Athletics

He would come to know and learn about her heart and how important her faith was in her life and as a result, they have been together ever since. Family is everything to him, both on and off the field and he echoes that sentiment.

“I love spending time with my wife and our son. Christen and I go on a date every single week, we don’t miss. There’s nothing that could come up to not allow us to have that one-on-one time together because when you think about how we’re going to be good parents for our son, Reeves, it starts with our marriage and our relationship,” Mingione said. “I really enjoy that and spending time with Reeves. I enjoy reading with him at night and putting him to bed. I love that.”

But when he’s not with his family or on the baseball field, the one thing the baseball coach wants to do is go fishing. He and Christen bought a place in town and it’s on the water. He has only been fishing 10 times in a year and a half but for those 10 times, he could tell you where he went and every fish he caught.

Despite the levels of success Mingione has brought Kentucky to, in his brief time at the helm, he doesn’t act like a rock star and exudes a sense of humbleness regarding the groundwork to make Kentucky a national power in baseball.

Enthusiasm for America’s favorite pastime is reaching new levels in the Bluegrass. Next season, the Wildcats will play in their brand new $49 million stadium. Home attendance records are being broken.

Last year, every single Kentucky player wrote a thank you letter to season ticket holders in the middle of the season. It was important for Mingione to find ways for the program to connect with the Big Blue Nation.

Lexington and the entire state of Kentucky have completely embraced Mingione and the baseball team. And it shows. The night of the regional finals when Kentucky defeated N.C. State at home to advance to the super regionals, a ray of hope shimmered through the cool down. “When I came here in 2005 and saw the team and everything that went into 2006, I truly believed that this was possible. I saw how much the people loved baseball,” Mingione said. “I remember going to speak to a Little League team in 2006 and I was amazed at how many people were at this Little League ballpark. I remember thinking, we got to get these people a product and put something on the field that they can be excited about and connect with so there’s been a lot of time and intentional effort to build it.”

Last year, every single Kentucky player wrote a thank you letter to season ticket holders in the middle of the season. It was important for Mingione to find ways for the program to connect with the Big Blue Nation.

They started having birthday parties for children that wanted to celebrate their birthday with them. The kids would come in the dugout to meet the players and take pictures before the game and let them throw out the first pitch.

“We invite teams to run out onto the field with us and stand with our players during the national anthem. We want them to be a part of it,” Mingione said. “Every single Friday night of SEC games, we decided we’re going to have fireworks. What little kid doesn’t want to see fireworks? Then we decided after every single Saturday game, let’s have the kids run the bases and every Sunday after SEC games, what do we do? We have our players stay and sign autographs. There’s been a lot of intentional effort to connect with the people of Lexington and this state.”

Photo by UK Athletics

Emphasizing those special moments for the kids goes back to Mingione’s earliest memories of when he fell in love with baseball. Those special times when he was seven years old, living in New York and playing baseball in his small backyard with his two brothers, watching the New York Yankees on WPIX and waiting for his dad to come home from work and play catch.

It all comes back to family. Kentucky baseball is all about family and that element never leaves Mingione’s mindset even from the dugout. He’s helping build something special.

“My absolute favorite thing to do on a baseball field is to watch our players have a dogpile and celebrate. We spend all of this time together trying to do something, to watch them overcome with joy and emotion is a really neat deal,” Mingione said. “I sit back and get emotional and just watch them because I think anybody who has children will tell you, to watch your kids celebrate and be so happy is such an amazing feeling.”

But for Mingione, regardless of what his legacy blossoms into, how he wants to be ultimately viewed will not come from how many SEC Championships he wins or how many players he puts into the pros or how many College World Series appearances he attains, it’s bigger than that.

“I would hope someone would look back and go, ‘That’s a guy that loved God, he served God and served everybody that he was around and not only did he talk the talk, he walked the walk and he woke up every day trying to make people better in all areas of their life,’” Mingione said. “That’s what I would hope.”

 

Kentucky (8-1) will be on the road as they take on the University of Houston (4-2) on Friday, March 2 at 4:30 p.m.

 

 This article also appears on page 6 & 7 of the March 2018 print edition of Ace. 

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