What is it like for you to walk into the baseball office and see on the wall by the front door a list of the 10 largest crowds in baseball history and they are all Mississippi State crowds?
"Every single day that I walk into this building I see all the history and all the tradition of Mississippi State baseball. It is extremely humbling for me to the head baseball coach here. I am so honored to be able to do this because I understand what the pass means for this program.
"You go back to the era that Ron Polk started. You can go all the way back to the 70s and the phenomenal players that were on the 1985 team. There is real history with Mississippi State baseball. And there is a tremendous, passionate fanbase that loves Mississippi State baseball. The excitement that Mississippi State baseball generates is unrivaled anywhere because the community and the town of Starkville absolutely love Mississippi State baseball. It is really important to them. And that is why I want to do everything that I can within my power to win that first national championship here. Mississippi State deserves to be national champions in baseball."
I know it has only been about three weeks since you have been on the job. But have you seen that passion from the fans firsthand during those three weeks?
"The people in Starkville have been amazing to my family and me. They want the best for us, the best for our players, the best for the university. And the unique thing about Mississippi State is everybody in the city of Starkville are diehard Mississippi State fans. Winning and being great in baseball matters to them. That is one of the reasons why this university and this job were so appealing to me. This is a baseball town. And I love baseball. I have loved it since I was three-years old playing in the back yard with my mom and dad. Baseball has always been such an important part of my life. I was very fortunate to play baseball until I was thirty-years old. And I feel this town and this university is a perfect fit for me because they love baseball as much as I love it."
You have had great success in everything that you have done in baseball. Where does that drive come from that has allowed you to be so successful?
"That kind of touches on what we spoke about earlier. I love the game of baseball. And I am very competitive and hate to lose. I think I hate to lose more than I love to win. I am driven to have success. My dad was a high school and college coach, so I grew up around the game in the dugout. I grew up around his teams. And I knew that I wanted to play in the Major Leagues someday. And, hopefully, coach like my dad. There was this passion of growing up around this game and, basically, wanting to be like my dad. My dad (Gary Cannizaro) is my biggest idol and role model in my life.
"But to do all of those things as a player I knew I had to work harder than everybody else because I wasn't overly tooled out talent-wise. I had a really good skill-set and could play shortstop. I had to work at it but I loved working at the game of baseball. And it gave me a chance to be around my dad all of the time. It wasn't work to me because I loved doing it and I loved being around my dad. And the more time you do something the better your skills become.
"I was very fortunate to play college and play for Rick Jones at Tulane. I feel like he was one of the best coaches in the country. And he did incredible things at that program. I learned more things about the game while playing for him.
"Then I was lucky enough to be drafted by the New York Yankees, a program with so much pride and tradition. It is the greatest organization in pro sports. I was around some great people who continued to develop my game as a player. In the meantime, I was about to hang around people who knew more about baseball than anybody I had ever been around in the life.
"It was just a constant acquiring of information about the game of baseball. My passion for the game continued to grow.
"Then I was lucky enough to play in the Big Leagues and be around great, Hall of Fame players. I saw that it wasn't just God-given talent because those were the hardest working guys that I had ever been around.
"After playing in the Big Leagues I was fortunate enough to get into scouting with the New York Yankees. And I took the knowledge that I had acquired through the years and used it to scout amateur baseball players."
One of the pro scouts that I talked to told me that John Cohen is always seven steps ahead of everybody else. You mentioned scouting. Upwards of ten guys you signed during your five years of scouting have made it to the Big Leagues. It is almost like you are seven steps ahead of everybody else, too. You obviously see things in players others don't. What do you see in them?
"You have to be able to identify the talent, the tools. I think you follow the tools, hit, run and throw. Once you find the tools, you get to know the young man and find out what his makeup is like. If you have tools, makeup and work ethic, then that is when guys really take off. In baseball, you have to be a worker. Baseball is a skilled sport. You can't cheat the game. You have to spend time hitting, taking ground balls, spend time catching fly balls. And you have to do it like it is a game. It needs to be under game speed, game reps. And you have to try and push yourself to be the very best player that you can be. And that is what I try to do with players."
How do you see those three things enough to really know the kid has all of them?
"You have to really get to know the kid either by talking to him or spending time with him. You also have to spend a lot of time with his high school coach, college coaches, and coaches who coached them growing up. There is usually a common theme when you talk to those guys. And you try to find that theme where there is a drive to be great."
You have a unique situation due to being a pro scout and now a head baseball coach in college. College coaches have to compete with the pro scouts for kids. You have an advantage because you know what pro scouts tell kids in an attempt to get them to go pro. How will that help you as a head coach in college?
"I think the biggest thing you try to do is find kids who can play the game well enough to play it in college and families that value a college education. That is first and foremost. The college degree will give you a lifetime in earning power. By going to college, you are doing things that will benefit you the rest of your life. Baseball is going to end for everybody. If you are lucky to be in that very small percentage you get to play until you are 25 to 30 years. Kids 16 to 18 years old don't think that way and they shouldn't. It is your job as a head coach to educate them on the value of a college degree. It will allow them to earn a living and support a family long after baseball is over.
"If you look at the percentage of guys from the United States who are playing in the Big Leagues, half of them come from college as opposed to signing out of high school. You can show them when they come to college they aren't losing the opportunity to play in the Big Leagues some day. In fact, you are increasing your odds of playing in the Big Leagues some day. if you come to Mississippi State and play in the SEC, the best baseball conference in college. When you compete in the SEC you are ready for professional baseball at twenty-one years old."
Let's get more into the current Mississippi State baseball team. Even though you have only been the head coach for a few weeks and have only seen your players during that time, have you attempted to make some adjustments with your players?
"The biggest thing that I have tried to do on the field is evaluate what is going on. Who can do what. It has given me an opportunity to see our pitchers throw two to three times. I have been able to see our hitters hit 20 to 25 times. Basically, what I have been doing is fact gathering, trying to see who can do what.
"A lot of things that I believe it, we are starting to inter grate those things slowly in. But there are a lot of things that have been going before I got here that are working great. I give John Cohen so much credit for continuing to raise the bar of this program. There are some things that I believe in that I feel can mesh into what they were doing before so we can make this program bigger and better."
I love the stolen base in baseball. Are you going to place a big emphasis on that aspect of the game?
"I sure hope so because that is the plan. That is how I have always played and how I have always coached. At LSU we led the SEC in stolen bases the last two years. I think the year before I got there LSU had stolen something like 45 to 50 stolen bases. The first year I was there I think we stole something like 130 bases, led the SEC and finished second in the country. Last year we stole 100 bases and led the SEC again. It is something that I really believe in. I believe in applying pressure on the defense. I believe in playing fast and applying pressure. That is the way that we want to play. But you have to have the pieces to play that way. I am not going to try and put a square peg in a round hole. We have some really good players on this team, really athletic kids, so I certainly think we are going to be able to steal some bases and do some things that I have always done."
What are your thoughts about the hitting, defense and pitching of this team?
"The first thing that stands out about this team is it can really defend. I think they do a really good job of taking care of the baseball. They always make the routine play. Pitching, we certainly have some premium power arms. They lost a lot of pitching off of last year's team but I think we have enough power arms to have success in this league. Offensively, I think there are some parts and pieces that we can really work with."
When John Cohen called you about the job did he tell you why he was interested in you?
"He didn't really give me a reason as to why. I have always had a supreme confidence in my ability to play and coach baseball and help young baseball players become better. I have always believed in my mind that I would have this opportunity. I was certainly surprised when he called me because I wasn't totally aware of what was going on at Mississippi State. I was coaching the guys at LSU during their fall practices. When he told me there was a chance that he would be interviewing for the athletic director position at Mississippi State and wanted to know if I had interest in talking about the head baseball coaching job if that were to become available. I told him I absolutely would love to talk with him about the job. Then, I got back to my business at LSU. I tried to put it in the back of my mind and not think about it every day because I had no control over the situation. I didn't know if John was going to become the athletic director. I needed to put all of my energy into coaching the kids at LSU."
When did you actually find out that the job had become available?
"(LSU head baseball coach) Paul (Mainieri) was the one who broke the news to me about the job at Mississippi State. He said if things went well during the conversation then he felt confident that he was going to offer me the job."
What happened after that?
"I talked to Paul and he had me call John. I talked to John for a long time on the phone. I came up here the very next day. Then the process went extremely fast. I, basically, told him that I was dying to be the head baseball coach at Mississippi State. This is one of biggest destination jobs in all of college baseball. I really believe that in my heart. This community, this town, this university, this athletic department wants to be great in baseball. I was excited about having the opportunity to be the head baseball coach here. I wanted to take it and run and formulate a staff and a team that will win a national championship here."
This is my last question. The program that you are coaching is about to build the greatest baseball stadium in college baseball. What does that mean to you?
"It is putting the greatest college baseball fans into the greatest college baseball stadium. The atmosphere at Dudy Noble is the best in America. Now, you are going to have the greatest baseball stadium and the largest video scoreboard in the country. That will attract the best amateur baseball players in the country to come here and help us win our first national championship."