None will be disappointed by the 41-year-old coach and former Diamond Dog outfielder's strong Saturday statements about taking over. "I know what can be done," Cohen said. "And I wouldn't be standing here if I didn't think we could do it."
Saturday capped a frenetic week for coach and athletic director both, as Byrne only approached Cohen on Tuesday. State's new A.D., who officially assumes the post July 1, said made his first hiring offer Thursday evening in Lexington and Cohen accepted yesterday morning. This after Kentucky made every effort, especially financial, to keep the coach who had put a long-moribund baseball program into conference and national contention. In fact, Cohen was supposedly made an offer that would have put his paycheck near the top of his profession.
"But you can't put a price tag on your dreams," said Cohen, a 1988-90 Bulldog ballplayer. "And this is a dream of mine. I know that sounds corny in this day and age but I believe in that. I believe in dreams. It's just a great, great opportunity among a line of opportunities I've had in my lifetime. Yet the chances we've taken and all the stops, we've always hoped it would lead back to Starkville. And it's actually happened, and it's a little surreal for me right now. But I'm thrilled to death."
The full press conference transcript, with opening statements by both Byrne and Cohen and the question/answer session, follows:
Athletic Director Greg Byrne: "I want to thank everybody for being here for this very special day. I do want to recognize somebody we really appreciate being here, that's head football Coach Sylvester Croom. Before we get too far down the road, starting at 1:00 people can go to MStateathletics.com and make a deposit for new 2009 season baseball tickets. Those are general admission tickets so if you have chairbacks and such don't worry about that, but we need you to buy season tickets and I want to encourage everybody to do their part. It's critical for us in what we're trying to do."
"I want to thank everybody in the baseball world that was so honest and open with me during this search. People from both inside and outside the Mississippi State family gave us tremendous insight throughout. I also want to thank Mike Nemeth and many athletic department personnel who gave tremendous time and effort throughout this process. The last 48 hours have been very good and very tough for my wife Regina and me. Yesterday I served as a pallbearer at a funeral for a very dear friend; the night before I had to tell one of my closest friends, Mitch Barnhart at the University of Kentucky, that we had offered a job to a coach he did not want to lose and was willing to put up tremendous resources to keep him. That was the tough part."
"Let's concentrate on the good now. When Dr. Vance Watson announced the search process, we told everyone we would do a national search to find the best baseball coach for Mississippi State University. We quickly found out that this job was attractive to many collegiate head baseball coaches that had tremendous track records, some of which had ties to Mississippi State. And all of them wanted this job."
"John Cohen and I had a history from the University of Kentucky. From the first day I met him I knew his passion and commitment to college baseball was unmatched. After months of research and work we know we have fulfilled our mission of finding the best baseball coach for Mississippi State. Please welcome home your new baseball coach, John Cohen."
"We're going to start a new tradition here at Mississippi State. When we welcome somebody either back in the family or new to the family, we're going to put a maroon sport coat on to show the colors."
Head Baseball Coach John Cohen: "I tell you what, I'm glad my daughters are on that side so they can't see that picture over there! You know, Coach Croom and I are both from Tuscaloosa, we think there's going to real problem if you hire one more guy from there. But growing up there was a gentleman I idolized, and every time he would go to the Sugar Bowl he would take his very famous houndstooth hat off because he said his mother wouldn't let him wear a hat inside. So as much as I want to wear this (MS cap) right now I'm going to live up to the expectation of Coach (Paul) Bryant, and the expectation we have of our players here at Mississippi State and take our hat off, if that's OK!"
"I want to thank my mother (Doris Cohen), who drove in from Tuscaloosa this morning. It's been said many times by people inside and outside my family, Stratton Karatassos mentioned this to me, the biggest Mississippi State baseball fan of all was my father (Harry Cohen) who passed away last fall and it was very hard on our family. But I know somewhere, somehow he's pretty happy right now. I want to thank my mom and my father for putting me in this position. I told them, I guess it was about 20 years ago, I wanted to come to Mississippi State and they were very supportive. Obviously it's been the experience of a lifetime for me. I want to thank my mother-in-law Diane who is here from Tuscaloosa also. My wife Nelle and my two daughters Jordon and Avery."
"This is home to me. It's not just home for me, it's home to all the people that have been calling me over the last 24 hours. All the players that have been so supportive of me. Really it's been overwhelming, the amount of support and calls and emails. Even at the airport last night the reception was wonderful. I get an opportunity to live close to my mother and mother-in-law, I'm sure they'll be wearing out Highway 82…it's a little safer now than when I went to school here!"
"I briefly want to talk about the road that has gotten me here. I think it was about 15 years ago Ron Polk and Larry Templeton told a fellow by the name of Gene McArtor (head coach) at the University of Missouri, they flat-out begged him to take me as a graduate assistant. They said would you please take this guy off our hands, he's bugging us! And he did. From Missouri on to being a head coach at Northwestern Louisiana; the guy I took over was a guy named Dave Van Horn who is now at Arkansas; he took over from a guy named Jim Wells, now at the University of Alabama. It was pretty high expectations at little old Northwestern State, but that was a really important place for me. I got to be an assistant coach to Pat McMahon who I consider to be the older brother I never had. He called me this morning and is really one of the special people in my life."
"Then having gone to the University of Kentucky and the opportunity that Mitch Barnhart gave me there was just overwhelming. I had to learn to shovel a little bit of snow! Being a head coach in the SEC for the very first time was a challenge, Kentucky didn't put a lot of emphasis on baseball but Mitch Barnhart said he was going to change all that. And the opportunity—I use that word a lot with our players—was phenomenal to me. I will always have great respect for that institution for the opportunities they gave me, and for the players who flat played their heart out for me and our assistant coaches. And we did something that had never been done there, we won a SEC Championship for the first time in the 101-year baseball history at Kentucky and I'm very, very proud of that."
"I want to thank Ron Polk. I wouldn't be standing here right now if it wasn't for Ron Polk, and I know that. I tell him that every time I talk to him. I'm not ashamed to tell him how I love him, he's told me how much he loves me. There could be a ‘but' at the end of that sentence! But I will always love and respect him. I love and admire Tommy Raffo. Tommy is a very close friend and means the world to me, he's one of the best assistant coaches in the country and I really admire the work he's done here at Mississippi State. Rusty McNickle, Wade Hedges, the entire staff here at Mississippi State is first-rate and I have nothing but respect for that group of coaches."
"I want to quote my wife here, talk about the tradition of Mississippi State. She was talking to her sister over the phone and I overheard her say this about 48 hours ago. She said ‘why does John want to go back to Mississippi State?' And Nelle said to her sister you know, every musician wants to play Carnegie Hall. And Dudy Noble Field is the Carnegie Hall of college baseball."
"I want to speak a little bit about my vision of this program. This program has great history. I talked to Buck Showalter last night, I talked to Jeff Brantley this morning. It is rich in history and the things that have been done here have been tremendous, I've loved being a part of it as a player. But I can tell you, I wouldn't be standing here if I didn't feel like we could take it to a different level. That's important for me, that's why I'm here. I have a very aggressive type of personality, I believe in playing hard and working hard. I believe in attacking your opponent. I believe in just flat-out getting after it. And that's how this program is going to be from this moment forward. Not to say in any way that's not how it has been in the past, I'm not an expert on Mississippi State baseball from the time I left here. But I can tell you I know my personality and I only know one way and that's the way it's going to be here at Mississippi State."
"I can tell you that in our industry, one of the main topics that comes out when you get a lot of baseball coaches together is conversations about new rules that are coming out and all the challenges that confront us. And they are real challenges. I have to be honest with all of you: I'm not interested in that. I'm not interested in any of the rules…let me rephrase that! I'm very interested in the rules! I'm not interested in talking about NCAA rules, talking about scholarship dilemmas. I'm interested in making this program into a national contender year-in and year-out."
"I introduced my wife earlier, this is our fifth stop together. And our kids joined us about halfway through that! It's been a long road for her, too, and she's been incredibly supportive. She has embraced the idea of coming to Starkville, Miss., and without her support I couldn't be standing here also. We can open it up for any questions anybody would have."
Q: You mentioned ‘another level.' Could you expound on that and what are some of your expectations? "It's the same goal I had at Kentucky. We signed arguably the nation's best recruiting class at Kentucky this year, we signed four of the nation's top-27 players last fall. That's exactly what I'm talking about. I'm talking about competing at the very highest level in recruiting, on the field, in every part of it."
"Anything but Omaha is a disappointment. And Omaha is just not good enough either. We've been to Omaha. There's only one thing that hasn't been done."
"The thing that intrigued me the most about Kentucky is they had never won a SEC championship, they had been to three regionals in 102 years. We've been to two in the last three. I wanted to take that higher. It's a lot more difficult to take Mississippi State higher but that is what we're going to do. And we're going to do it the right way. We're going to do it with blood, sweat, and tears. And nobody will hustle more, attack the game, show more passion, give more effort than Mississippi State baseball players. And I can tell you if for some reasons we have kids who are not interested in that form of baseball, then they're probably going to have a very difficult time with John Cohen."
"And that's not me trying to be Darth Vader! That's me being who I am. I learned a long time ago if you try to be someone else you're making a big mistake. Because I can tell you this, I wanted to be Will Clark! Ain't no doubt, I'll admit that in front of everybody I wanted to be Will Clark. And it just didn't work out that way! In fact Coach Polk used to say John, why don't you come back to the Alumni Game? Number one there is this thing called the early signing period in the fall and the Alumni Game is always in the fall. And at one point in time, alphabetically I had to be introduced right after Will Clark! Those two things combined hurt my chances of coming back to the Alumni Game!"
Q: When Polk announced his resignation in March did you know this was what you wanted to do? "No question about that. I'm sure there might have been a thousand other people who felt the way I did. It's where you want to me, a childhood dream to be here. In the middle of the season you're focused on your kids, but in the back of your mind that's working. I had a lot of emails and phone calls after that. I want to credit our players, too, even though there was that little bit of distraction our players really focused in on having a great year and that's what they did. We had two All-Americans, five all-district players, we had four all-SEC players, 17 academic all-SECs. We had a great group that was very focused and none of that got in their way of achieving."
Q: Do you have in mind any assistant coaches, and will one be designated as a recruiting coordinator? "We're in the process of evaluating that part of it, in terms of a staff. We're going to make great decisions on who those folk are going to be and I know the entire Bulldog Nation is going to be pleased with who we put into place there. We're going to have four recruiting coordinators. We're going to have two full-time assistants, Coach Cohen, and a volunteer assistant who can't legally go off-campus to recruit but can recruit on-campus."
"I want 35 players to be recruiting coordinators. At Kentucky with the great recruiting class we had this fall, what was the sell? When I first got to Kentucky what was the sell? It couldn't be basketball because the season is after the early signing period, it wasn't going to be football. We decided early on our coaching staff and players were going to sell the program and that's exactly what happened. And that's the way it is going to be here. We have a great, great fan base, the facilities are off the charts, that's going to help the recruiting process. But it all starts with what our players say to recruits and what our coaching staff says to recruits. So we're going to have a lot of recruiting coordinators. In fact we might have several recruiting coordinators in this room. I'm not saying that to be a smart-aleck, that's how I approach it."
Q: Do you have a timeframe for meeting with the current players? "I don't know if there will be an actual meeting. There will be a lot of phone calls and the reason is we don't want to pull these kids away from their summer baseball which is just critically important to their development. And we had some young men who had surgery, I'm going to find out more from Rusty Linton. We're going to get in touch with all of them and tell them what we're all about. From a distance I admired the group, I think it's a very solid group. There will be alterations I'm sure, but all that is going to be evaluated at some point in time."
Q: When you first got into coaching was this a place you thought you might want to come to? "I think Coach Polk might have thought when I got here I was trying to coach the team! We were playing Delta State my first year (1988), I stole second base and got thrown-out by about 37 feet. Coach Polk met me at second base and said please tell me you missed a signal there; I said no sir, I didn't. He said what were you doing? I said well, the guy is a 1.5 to the plate and I thought I could get a great jump… He goes I tell you what, let's do this: next time why don't you coach third base and I'll run the bases! That's when I knew two things, I knew who was in charge and I knew Mr. Ron Polk had a quick wit."
Q: Mr. Byrne and Coach, would you care to react to Coach Polk's words from yesterday? (Byrne) "Well, today is about John Cohen and the Cohen family and if it would be OK with everybody I'd really like to have our comments focused on that. But I certainly understand why you're asking the question."
(Cohen) "I will say I've been in contact with Coach Polk several times over the last couple of months. And I admire Coach's loyalty. I love him and would do anything in the world for Coach Polk. Every sentence he says to me starts with a couple of words: ‘Hey, you know I love you…' And I know he loves me and every player that has ever played for him. I understand his loyalty, it makes perfect sense to me."
"Quite frankly, I have a job to do now at Mississippi State. Would I love to have Ron Polk's support, absolutely. But we've still got to win a national championship. That's what I'm about and that's how it's going to be."
Q: Greg, take us through the process. (Byrne) "I called Mitch Barnhart on Monday and asked for permission to talk to John, their season ended Sunday. Mitch asked me to wait until Tuesday so he could have a chance to talk to John. I obviously was going to grant that. So starting Tuesday he and I started talking regularly through the week. I had a plan to get to Lexington later in the week, we probably though best-case scenario if this came together it would probably be Monday. But things just sped up quickly. I think we offered him the job Thursday evening and he accepted Friday morning. We came back last night and here we are today."
(Cohen) "I want to say Mitch Barnhart did everything you could humanly do for me to remain at Kentucky and I will always be grateful for that. What I explained to Mitch is that it wasn't about money. It was about where my heart was. I will leave a part of my heart at the University of Kentucky but the majority of my heart is right here in Starkville, Mississippi. When he told me that he'd been contacted on Monday we sat down Tuesday morning and met for a couple of hours. I think I read this morning and it must be true, he said he offered me one of the top two or three contracts in the history of college baseball. I just dog-gone near fainted when I saw that! It was shocking, I kept saying to him you know we're going to have 150 people in the stands here sometimes and we're not going to generate a lot of money to pay you back!"
"But you can't put a price tag on your dreams. And this is a dream of mine. I know that sounds corny in this day and age but I believe in that. I believe in dreams and this gentleman here (Byrne) made the dream come true for me. It's just a great, great opportunity among a line of opportunities I've had in my lifetime. Yet the chances we've taken and all the stops, we've always hoped it would lead back to Starkville. And it's actually happened, and it's a little surreal for me right now. But I'm thrilled to death."
Q: Do you have a signed contract and what are the terms? (Byrne) "We don't have a signed contract, we have a handshake agreement. It's a four-year contract, the state salary is $250,000 a year plus the supplement from the Bulldog Foundation. We have the normal benefits and those things that come along with it. The buyout is between the coach and the school and I believe they've been working on a settlement to make everything work. I think we made a statement early on that we wanted to be competitive to make sure we got the right coach. There are many aspects to your program that you have to be competitive in. You have to be competitive with your salaries, it's critical."
"One thing that's very important for us moving forward is we don't want Mississippi State to be a stopping-point on the way to something else. We want to attract the best coaches, the best staff, so we can have the top program we can possibly have at Mississippi State. We know the passion for baseball at Mississippi State, there's nothing equal to it. So we wanted to make sure we were competitive to that. You all have made that happen with your support of college baseball here. I think the package we have put together for John is very competitive."
Q: Why do you think Mississippi State can win a national championship? (Cohen) "Well, the level of support. It's very difficult for me to believe you have to talk kids into coming to Mississippi State. Quite frankly early on in the process at Kentucky we had to talk kids into it. The confluence of all the issues, with success and administration, the staff, the fan support, the radio network, the media that follows the team; all those things come together."
"And for me there is no reason why it can't be done. And we will exhaust every single fiber of our being to make that happen. Now does it happen tomorrow? Probably not, we have a ways to go. There are a lot of things that have to be done in my opinion. But I think we're going to get there. When I came to Kentucky I don't know if we could have beaten a nine-year-old Little League team in Lexington; two years after that we're on top of the Southeastern Conferenece."
"I know what can be done. And I wouldn't be standing here if I didn't think we could do it."
Q: Was there any hesitation after talking to Coach Polk about taking the job? "When a guy who ahs been a father figure to you your whole life says things you listen. And I truly do respect Ron Polk. There were thoughts of that. But the Bulldog Nation, those of you who sent me emails, texts, it was just overwhelming. That along with Greg and his administration really made me feel like it was the right thing to do and we could overcome a couple of bumps in the road for sure."
Q: Greg, how many people did interview for this job? (Byrne) "It depends on what you say is an interview. Face to face, six folks. You hear a lot of different things out there in the baseball community, there was just great interest and that was a wonderful position for us. We had to obviously take advantage of that. And one thing I want to follow-up on what John said, if we're going to be as good as we possibly can be in this conference everybody has the pedal to the metal every single day. If we take our foot off the pedal and get distracted they're going to blow right by us. So it's important for us to be very focused on that; for the recruiting, the coaching, the academics, all the different entities that go into it. And we couldn't have a better guy to do that than John Cohen."
Q: What will the first steps be for you here? (Cohen) "It's about evaluation. It's evaluation, evaluation, evaluation. You'll talk to professional scouts that cover this area, you'll talk to everyone in the baseball world. Talk to the kids themselves. I'm very hopeful to talk to the current staff. You just try to get the best feel as quickly as you can for the players you have, the availability, the recruiting climate in the state of Mississippi, and what our best options are going to be. Then you move in that direction as quickly as you can."
"I want to thank Dr. (Donald) Zacharias for being here, his signature is on my diploma so I sure do appreciate that!"
Q: Does the contract start July 1? (Byrne) "His contract starts today! We decided to do the unlimited minutes on the cel phone, too."
"Throughout we created the pros and cons of each candidate we considered. In some ways it's pretty easy to think who might be interested in this job, because obviously a lot of people want to be at Mississippi State. When we were going through the process and talking to different people in the baseball world and some of our great players and some who have coached in every level, when you throw out six, seven, eight names you'd say what do you think about this person. When you say what do think about John Cohen, unanimously they said if you can get John Cohen you get John Cohen. With that, having worked with him before and seen the way he manages his program, manages his kids, the way he manages academics and recruiting and all the entities that go into it; and knowing the quality of family he has and what that represents, as John said last night it was a no-brainer to come here. Well, it was a no-brainer for us to hire him, too."