Part One: The Evaluation
Nick Mingione, now an assistant coach and the recruiting coordinator for Mississippi State baseball, was sitting at a small ballpark in the Atlanta area, surrounded by the parents of high schools kids watching their sons play travel baseball. Back in Starkville, one of the members of the team Mingione was in Georgia to watch had just committed to play baseball at MSU, telling head coach John Cohen he wanted to spend his college years at State.
Mingione celebrating with the team after a win
The young man had long been identified by the staff as a player they wanted and Mingione was waiting on him in Atlanta to show the new commit how important he was to MSU. When the leadoff hitter finally made it to join his team in Atlanta, he was sprinting from the parking lot as the game had already started. By the time he got to the dugout, he was already on deck, cleats untied without a single warmup swing taken.
However, that travel ball star never made it to campus. He ended up being drafted and signed with an MLB team. However, the events turned out to be far from meaningless for MSU. While Mingione was there to watch the not-meant-to-be leadoff hitter, it was the three-hole guy that caught his eye, a kid from California named Gavin Collins.
Collins hit a towering home run while the new MSU commit was still tying his cleats and excelled as a catcher as the game progressed, leading Mingione to watch every one of his games and practices the next two weeks, following the promising prospect as he studied and recruited the new find. Collins ended up not only committing to MSU, but signing with the Bulldogs and is now entering his third year in the program, having earned a starting job in each of his first two seasons.
That’s just sort of how recruiting works, Mingione says. It’s a little all over the place, something of an organized chaos. He travels the country identifying talent and building relationships, trying to find the next stars to wear Maroon and White, searching for players every way he knows how. His days and nights – at home or on the road – are spent on the phone going through a new-age rolodex of coaches, scouts, players and parents. Some guys are easy to find. Some, like Collins, pop up out of nowhere.
“That’s one of my favorite parts about this whole thing. Each one of those players, they have their own story of how they ended up here in Starkville. That’s so cool to me. Every one of them is different.”
Not all situations involve such clear roads as the one for Collins, though. Some players, Mingione said, coaches hear about for weeks and even months before finally seeing them in person. Names are always flying in, with a finite number of spots available. The pursuit is constant, both in its unending and always-changing qualities.
“It’s like you’re chasing names and chasing ghosts until you actually see them,” Mingione said.
At MSU, under Cohen, the program puts a strong emphasis on information, especially in the evaluation phase of recruiting. Each player the school begins recruiting is asked a series of questions, typically by Mingione, surprisingly little of it having to do directly with playing baseball. What is their GPA? What are their parents’ names and what they do for a living? Who is their favorite pro team and who is their favorite big leaguer? What’s their girlfriend’s name? What are their hobbies? So on and so forth, questions ranging from informational to opinionated, serious to light.
Much of it is for conversational and recruiting purposes, finding things to talk about. But a great deal of it serves as something of a personality test, even if it’s not quite standardized.
“It’s such an inexact science,” Cohen said. “It’s not necessarily just the questions, even though they’re really important. It’s the way they answer the questions. [Mingione] keeps a binder and we will go back and discuss a guy, and he’ll tell me how a guy answered a question, not only the words, but the way in which he answers.”
“There’s a lot of trust and there’s a lot of teamwork,” Mingione said of the full recruiting process. “With recruiting, there’s two different phases. You have to go out and find guys. That’s the evaluation. Sitting there for the long hours in the summer heat, or the March cold, it’s trying to evaluate first. Then, once you find the guy you like, that’s when the recruiting process starts. I love both.”
Part Two: The Recruitment
Mingione, despite being a baseball coach in the SEC, has a nerdy side to him. He loves psychology, is intrigued by the way the brain works and puts a great deal of thought into the types of personalities different people have. Those interests, one can tell by hearing him talk, play a big part in what he does as a recruiter, identifying not just ability, but personality, determining how each will fit in at MSU.
Coaches around the country tease Mingione because he knows the names of players’ girlfriends, but to him, it’s something to talk about. He discusses baseball, of course, but he likes to find out what makes people who they are. Mingione is curious by nature, asking innocent questions of anyone he meets but quickly penetrating through the outer walls of their persona and discovering what is important to people, how they see the world and how they think the world sees them.
He loves people, and he tends to be a good judge of them, too, even if the approach in recruiting isn’t the norm of other college baseball coaches.
“But that’s important to me,” Mingione said, “because I want to develop a relationship with them. I believe that’s what Mississippi State is. It’s this huge tight-knit family that’s built on relationships.”
And that’s the approach of the whole staff in Starkville. Mingione offered the example of a fishing boat, saying that many programs cast a wide net, offering dozens of prospects, hoping to catch at least a few good ones. MSU, on the other hand, patiently sails the waters, eyes out for the big fish, preferring quality over quantity.
“We’re looking down at that big bass, trying to catch that big lunker,” he said, “and we want to do whatever we can to catch that one big fish.”
The process, one that involves every member of the staff and each person involved with the program on campus, seems to have worked. MSU has signed three-straight Top-10 classes, making the core of the team an incredibly talented one on paper. The most recent class was ranked third in the country, featuring the freshmen and transfers who arrived on campus in August.
Of course, they didn’t all sign with State because the coaches ask good questions. While talking about his job as a recruiter, Mingione accidentally slipped into a monologue, delivered with sincerity, that seems to be the short version of the recruiting pitch he presents to prospects and their families.
“Recruiting, in a lot of ways, you’re trying to sell your product,” he explained. “I truly believe, with all my heart, in the product of Mississippi State. I don’t know if there’s a better place. My brain works in boxes. When you go through the checklist of what people might think is important, I believe it starts with leadership. I believe with all my heart in what Scott Stricklin is doing and the vision of the athletic department. I think that’s been proven. John Cohen, I’ve been with him for a decade. When you spend as much time with somebody as you do after 10 years, especially in this sport, you see every side of them. You know their families. They know everything about you. He’s an amazing human being. When it comes time to sit there and talk about John Cohen, I don’t have enough time in the phone conversation because I truly believe in him. Every single day for 10 years, I’ve heard him talk to one of our players about their grades. It’s not just about baseball.
“Then,” Mingione continued, “you go and start talking about Mississippi State, and the baseball part is important. I think our track record is proven. We’re the only SEC school to go to Omaha in each of the past five decades. We’ve had over 50 big-leaguers. Our team GPA has been above a 3.0 for 10 straight semesters. Then, by the way, we have the greatest fans and the best atmosphere in all of college baseball to put on top of everything. It’s like, why wouldn’t someone want to come here?”
It’s a strong pitch, and Mingione delivers it well.
Part Three: The Coach
Nick Mingione The Coach is a direct result of Nick Mingione The Man. The same person who seems as if he’s never gone a day in his life without laughter has had every reason to pack up the metaphorical shop and give up. Growing up in Florida, Mingione has been providing for himself since around the age of 13. Baseball got him through college, then life got him through baseball.
For the first seven years of his coaching career, Mingione made a total of $36,000. Not his annual salary, but his gross income for most of a decade in which he lived without health insurance or a provided benefit of any kind.
In the beginning, working as a volunteer coach at Embry Riddle, he also put an area youth team through workouts on the side, being paid not in cash, but by the team’s coach giving him room and board in one of the many apartments he owned around town. After getting onto a meal plan at the school, Mingione had a roof to sleep under and food to eat, even if he had no money for anything else in life. Before that, Mingione had been sleeping on his coach’s couch, folding up the blanket every morning so it looked less like a bed and more like the living room it was supposed to be.
Sure, he’ll say now, still smiling as he confesses the truth, it was rough. But it was worth it. He was doing what he loved and still loves. Mingione was born to coach. True story, he says: his teammates on his little league team when he was 12 referred to Mingione as “Coach.” Making it official years down the line was just a formality.
“Nick’s story is so unique,” said Cohen, who hired Mingione while still at the University of Kentucky. “What he has had to overcome is inspirational in a lot of ways.”
There are still hard parts to it all even today, of course. Mingione might not be able to pull it off if it weren’t for his energy and passion in all things. A devoted family man who is also a committed recruiter, the balance can be difficult. He’s on the road constantly, and when he’s home, his wife Christen knows that any dinner can be interrupted at any second by a phone call he has no choice but to take.
The balance works, Mingione said, because of the family atmosphere fostered by Cohen. State’s head coach is always making sure Christen and their son Reeves are involved with the activities of the program. In fact, when Christen was still pregnant, Cohen and his wife threw a baby shower at their own house for the Mingione family.
“That’s what makes Mississippi State different,” Mingione said. “They’re able to be a part of it. If we are traveling, we have a road trip, they’re right there in the middle of it.”
What matters the most, Mingione believes, is how supportive Christen is of her husband. While he says he would expect every coach to say their wife is the best, he firmly believes Christen to be the best coach’s wife around, an incredible and loving supporter, in his words.
“I couldn’t do this without her,” he said. “As soon as the recruiting classes are ranked, the first person I call and congratulate is my wife. She’s spent all the nights with me gone and all the times when we’re in the middle of dinner and I have to take phone calls. She knows the boys by their names.”
Even their son has worked himself into the game, as Mingione said baby Reeves sealed the deal with a recruit last weekend, playing on the floor with the young man’s mom, helping the family along the path to eventually deciding to commit to MSU.
“The dad said that was the deal-maker,” he shared with a smile.
Everything that Mingione does is as part of a team, something he is quick to point out any time compliments or credit are sent his direction. Praise is constantly deflected in the name of the program and the school, and he’s certainly right that the might of Mississippi State baseball is based upon the whole, not any individual part.
However, the man running the program has no reservations about calling Mingione one of the key cogs in the system.
“There are not a lot of guys who can do what Nick Mingione can do,” Cohen said before turning an eye to the future. “I have seen Nick mature into a hurricane who encompasses so many different areas of expertise. There’s no doubt in my mind, he is going to be a great head coach. Is it next week? Is it next year? Is it five years? I don’t know, but there’s no question that Nick Mingione is going to be a great head coach one day.”