Cohen Comes Home As Top Diamond Dog

Eighteen years and a day after he hung up his Diamond Dog uniform at the 1990 College World Series, John Cohen will put on the Maroon and White again. But this time the former player will wear the colors as Mississippi State's top Dog. "It feels exactly like coming home," said Cohen Friday evening at Starkville's Bryan Field. "And that's why I'm here, because I know the fans and the tradition."

Cohen is indeed returning to his alma mater to become the 15th head baseball coach of Mississippi State. Four days after his fifth season at Kentucky ended in the title game of the Ann Arbor Regional, Cohen accepted MSU athletic director Greg Byrne's offer to take charge of the program he played outfield for in 1988-90. Cohen, accompanied by wife Nelle and their two daughters, landed at Starkville at 7:26 Friday—over 90 minutes behind schedule.

"Blame my wife, she's a slow packer!" quipped Cohen. Fortunately the family rounded up a Mississippi State baseball hat that youngest daughter Avery wore getting off the jet. Byrne and wife Regina had been in Lexington, Ky., the last two days for the funeral of a family friend were also on the flight. And Byrne, who was on the committee that selected Cohen to take over the Kentucky program in 2003, showed the wear-and-tear of an emotional week both personally and professionally.

Still State's new A.D., who officially doesn't assume the post until July 1, was obviously pleased with the results of his first coaching hire at Mississippi State. "We're all looking forward to tomorrow," said Byrne. Cohen will be formally presented at a 1:00 Saturday press conference on the Mississippi State campus, then at a 5:00 media meeting in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in Jackson.

Cohen was showing some strains too, not just from last weekend's down-to-the-wire Regional battles but from making this career choice. It wasn't easy leaving a program that he built into a SEC champion and NCAA contender, and one with some of the top prep talent in the country signed up already for future seasons. But then, this was Mississippi State that came calling…at last.

"It's the only place to be," said Cohen, after a telling pause. "I can't imagine being anywhere else. Since I was 15, 16 years old I've dreamed of this moment, it's here and it's kind of surreal. I'm thrilled, my family is thrilled. I tell you, I'm a little exhausted, there hasn't been a lot of sleep the last two days. It was tough walking away from the University of Kentucky, the people there were absolutely wonderful. But in the big picture it was absolutely no contest, this is where I wanted to be."

Practically from the hour Coach Ron Polk announced his retirement effective the end of the 2008 Mississippi State season, Bulldog baseball fans had viewed Cohen as the consensus front-runner for this job. Not just for his recent success at Kentucky, but the job he did as an assistant at the University of Florida and prior to that in his first head coaching stint at Northwestern (La.) State. Cohen has been on MSU minds for a long time, and suddenly the timing was right for everyone involved. Though, Cohen insisted, it was a back-of-the-mind matter for him as there was always the job to do.

"Obviously I've been thinking about it for a while. But the opportunity wasn't real until the last couple of days. And when you're in our sport or any sport you don't consider things until it's right in front of you. Now it's in front. Greg Byrne did a remarkable job. He really didn't have to sell me on Mississippi State, I know a little bit about it!"

A lot about Bulldog baseball, rather. A Tuscaloosa native, Cohen began his college playing career at Birmingham Southern in 1986 before transferring to Mississippi State. After sitting out a year he started three seasons with the Diamond Dogs on teams that won a Southeastern Conference championship in 1989, shared the weather-shortened 1990 SEC Tournament title, and hosted NCAA regional tournaments all three years. His 1990 senior squad won the Starkville Regional and advanced to the College World Series.

Cohen batted .333 as a senior leftfielder with eight home runs and a team-best 71 RBI. His three-year average at State was .316 with 27 home runs and 168 RBI. Arguably his best Bulldog moments came in showdown games with MSU's arch-rival LSU. In 1988, with ESPN televising the Sunday night contest, Cohen's solo home run provided all the scoring in a 1-0 victory at Dudy Noble Field. A year later at Baton Rouge, it was Cohen slugging another homer for the go-ahead runs in a 4-3 win that was key to the '89 league title surge.

Cohen also scored the tying run in the '90 Regional final with Florida State, the game that sent his senior squad to Omaha. After graduation he spent a couple of seasons in the Minnesota Twins system before returning to college baseball as an assistant coach at Missouri from 1992-97, with the Tigers making a 1996 NCAA regional appearance. Cohen took the step up to head coach in 1998 at Northwestern State, producing four-straight winning seasons and Southland Conference championships in both '98 and 2001. Both times he was the league Coach of the Year.

In 2002-03, Cohen came back to the SEC as an aide to his former college assistant coach, Pat McMahon, at the University of Florida where he was in charge of batting. The Gators did that very well, leading the nation in '02 in base hits and ranking second in average, runs, and home runs. In '03 the Gators led the league in five hitting and scoring categories. But it was in Lexington that Cohen had the chance to put his offensive ideas and attitudes into fuller play as the Wildcats, taking advantage of a friendly home field, hit for average and power.

The 2006 season was when it all came together with a then-program record 44 victories and share of Kentucky's first-ever Southeastern Conference championship. That brought another first, a NCAA regional at Shively Field, and the first post-season play since 1993. Those Wildcats not only led the SEC in most offensive categories but set school records for hits and walks in the same season. Cohen was rewarded for the breakout season with both SEC and National Baseball Foundation coach of the year honors.

After a rebuilding season, the 2008 Wildcats matched the program record with 44 wins and a return to the NCAA tournament. In five seasons Cohen had a 175-113-1 record at Kentucky, and counting four years at NWLa he is 321-196-1.

The program he takes over is not at the level Cohen left it though. The Bulldogs are coming off the first losing season in Starkville since 1975, and first year with no SEC or NCAA tourney play since 1986. Cohen also assumes charge right at a time of structural change mandated by the NCAA's new scholarship distribution and roster limit regulations. And unlike at Kentucky where state-sponsored education lotteries provided extra funds for student-athletes to use, most notably college baseball players, Cohen will have fewer grants for recruiting and keeping prospects.

And yet… "It was absolutely a no-brainer decision for me," he said today. "And I told (Kentucky athletic director) Mitch Barnhart you have to understand, you've done everything for me and my family and for Kentucky baseball. But this has been a dream of mine forever. And I can't walk away from it."

The new Bulldog coach also has to deal with an uncomfortable aspect to his hiring. The coach he played for decried this hiring, as Polk—who is at the Athens super regional—expressed extreme displeasure over Byrne's selection. Since announcing his retirement mid-season Polk pressed the case of assistant Tommy Raffo, a 15-year aide to Polk and McMahon at State and the first baseman on Cohen's Bulldog teams. Ironically it was Raffo who drove in Cohen for that game-tying RBI in the '90 Regional title game.

Cohen was told in-advance of arrival about Polk's strong statements, and dealt with it graciously. "I love Coach Polk, I always will love Coach Polk, he's like a father figure to me. In fact every time he calls me the first thing he says is "I love you, but…!" I respect everything Coach has to say, we might differ on opinions but it doesn't change my affection for him nor my affection for Mississippi State. Which is why I'm standing here right now."

Saturday Cohen will stand at the podium as Byrne presents him as the coach to re-energize Mississippi State's program. And it's no surprise to any who have watched his teams play, or for that matter who knew the emotional Diamond Dog back in his own playing days, that Cohen is ready to start the job immediately.

"We're going to get after it. There's only one way I know and that's full-speed ahead, in a very aggressive type of manner."

Cohen, 42, is the son of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Cohen. He holds a degree in English from Mississippi State and a masters in sports management from Missouri. He and wife Nelle have two daughters, Jordan Baker 13 and Avery Lawson 11.

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