College athletes often will give up their last year of eligibility for a chance to begin their professional careers early. The aura of signing a professional contract and the risk of injury guides the final decision. However, those athletes that make the leap may lose the chance to win a national championship and the opportunity to continue relationships with their teammates. By leaving school early, they may also miss out on valuable experiences that would enhance their pro careers.
Former LSU pitcher Louis Coleman represents the benefits of delaying entry into pro baseball for one last run. Coleman, drafted in the 14th round by the Washington Nationals after the 2008 season, returned to LSU for the 2009 season to help lift the Tigers to their sixth national championship.
“Coach (Paul) Mainieri was very kind and let me throw the last pitch in the College World Series,” Coleman, who pitched in 25 games during his senior season, said. “That meant a whole lot to me. Those are the exact reasons why I came back, and Coach Mainieri rewarded me. I couldn’t have written a better script or thought it out any better. I always wanted to play for a national championship, and in my senior year it was perfect.”
Following Coleman’s 2008 junior season, in which he posted an 8-1 record, he had a difficult decision to make. Go pro or return for his senior season.
“I think one of the main reasons I came back was the guys in the clubhouse,” Coleman said. “I had a lot of friends, and I wasn’t ready to leave that yet. I knew that pro ball would be there. I didn’t want to leave my teammates and wanted to climb the mountain from the year before.”
Besides the close relationship that Coleman had with his teammates, the opportunity to finish his college education and earn his degree was a factor in his decision. Between the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Mainieri was delighted with one of his top pitcher’s decision.
“Naturally, I was thrilled when Louis told me he would be with us for his senior season, because he’s an outstanding young man who was going to be vital to our team’s success,” Mainieri said. “He decided to continue to pursue his education and represent LSU in a first-class manner. His decision to return to LSU for his senior season was the best choice he could have possibly made, and his story is a tremendous example of the value of staying in school.”
The perfect ending to his college career also reaped personal benefits for Coleman. He garnered national attention as he finished the season as a first-team all-American and the SEC Pitcher of the Year. His accolades helped improve his draft stock significantly, and the Kansas City Royals drafted Coleman in the fifth round of the 2009 draft.
“If you are a later-round guy your junior year, all you are going to do by going back to school is miss one year of pro ball,” Coleman said. “One more year in the SEC and Division I baseball, you are going to be playing the same caliber competition in at the High A pro level. You are actually playing better baseball at LSU. You’re getting great crowds. If you play really well you’re senior season you have a chance to skip those lower levels and that is a huge confidence boost going right into pro ball.”
Coleman excelled in the minors, registering 11 wins, 11 saves and a 2.16 ERA in two-plus seasons in Single A, Double A and Triple A. He made his major league debut for the Royals April 22 and has appeared in 23 games in relief, recording 29 strikeouts in 24.1 innings with a 2.59 ERA and a .159 opponent batting average.
"I enjoyed one of the best moments in my professional career the morning that I learned that Louis received the call to the big leagues,” Mainieri said. “That young man means so much to me and to LSU. He's an extremely talented player who lives his life in an exemplary way. He was an inspiration to all of us during his LSU career, and I know he will make a big impact with the Royals. All of us are so happy for Louis and his wonderful family."
On the flip side, Coleman believes that the guidance he received from Mainieri during his time at LSU directly influenced his quick ascendance through the minors.
“The philosophy that Coach Mainieri instilled has helped me immensely,” Coleman said. “He was always talking about the little things that matter the most. His philosophy of the game of baseball is very similar to what the Royals teach. When they were explaining new things to us, I had already heard it once or twice before.”