A Q&A with MSU Baseball Coach John Cohen

Now that he's had a chance to settle in, Mississippi State head baseball coach John Cohen took time to sit down with GenesPage.com and talk MSU baseball.

John Cohen Profile Page:

Every guy you hired on your staff has been a recruiting coordinator at other schools. Obviously, there are reasons for that. What are they?
"I think it's the most important thing that we do. Improving players, making players better is really important, but if you don't have the talent level in the Southeastern Conference it's just not going to happen for you.

"Getting talent and creating the right type of makeup ... you aren't just recruiting talent, but you are also recruiting makeup. And a recruiting coordinator - a guy who has been on the road, a guy who has been on the phone, a guy who has relationships with scouts and high school coaches - is a guy who knows how to ask the questions that the novice or new person doesn't know to ask.

"Really, you are asking the same question over and over again, but in a different way. You can't just ask, 'how tough is this kid?' You say, 'give me an example of how tough this kid is? What has he done in a game or practice? Tell me how tough he is?'

"Everybody has bad days, but you can't recruit players who have bad days (and they let it affect them in games or practices). Players go 0 for 3 and pitchers don't throw to location. But if they have a bad day in practice and they pull everyone else around them down, no matter how talent they are you are recruiting the wrong player.

"It's not just recruiting talent, but it's putting the right people in our environment. Lane Burroughs may call me and tell me he has a guy he really likes who throws 88 to 92, has a slider and can spin it, he's athletic and can play shortstop. My question to him is, 'how tough is the kid?' He may say, 'I was just talking to his coach and he said he's not afraid to throw it inside.' To me, those are the conversations that help you win the big one down the road. I want toughness. Toughness is everything. Toughness shows up when things aren't going your way.

"I feel very fortunate because I played at Mississippi State with some really tough kids. Barry Winford was a tough guy. He was a defensive back for the football team here. Tracy Jobes was a tough guy. Pete Young might have been one of the toughest kids that I have ever competed against. Jon Shave was a tough guy. Tommy Raffo was a tough, tough, tough kid when he played here. We had real toughness. That, along with a talent level, is what we are trying to get here, right now."

It's probably easy for a coach to see a hitter who has great bat speed or a pitcher with a great fastball, but toughness is not always easy to see. How will you be able to identify that toughness?
"We are going to be on the road continuously and we are going to have to rely on coaches. The great thing is, between Lane Burroughs, Butch Thompson, there is not a whole lot of the state that don't know very, very well and intimately. And then you consider what Butch has done from a recruiting standpoint in the state of Alabama when he was at Auburn. And the ties they have even into Tennessee. And something great for us is the one year Lane spent in the midwest establishing ties up there. And having Nick Mingione on our staff, who was the recruiting coordinator at Western Carolina, which has a great baseball tradition, is great for us.

"I think recruiting ... I don't really call it recruiting but evaluating. We are constantly evaluating kids. Recruiting is what you do at the end when you are trying to talk them into coming here. The tough thing is the evaluating process. Who do you want to be here? Out of that huge pool of people, who fits into what we are trying to do here? That's what makes it extremely difficult."

I assume you want to be 100% correct in your evaluation of players, but based on past experience what would you say is a realistic percentage of success?
"I would say in our league, if you are at 80%, that is off the chart. If you bring in 10 kids and 2 of them don't pan out, that is an extremely high number. But with the APR being a factor now, if you are recruiting 10 kids and 6 of them pan out and become really good SEC players, I think you are good. That is an average job of evaluating. But if you are at that number of 8, that is a very high percentage.

"But it is different at Mississippi State than it is at Kentucky because the fish bowl of kids here is not unlike being a Kentucky basketball player. A baseball player at Kentucky can go to the corner drugstore and not be identified immediately. But here it is a fish bowl. So, you have to have a kid who is not only willing but can represent the program the right way. We were fortunate to get those type kids at Kentucky, but that is especially important here.

"Another thing about Lexington is you can disappear among 250,000 people, but you can't in Starkville due to its size. You aren't invisible, nor are any of the athletes here. You have to bring the right kind of kid in here."

Speaking of Kentucky and Mississippi State, what has been the difference in recruiting for Mississippi State compared to recruiting for Kentucky?
"The sale at Kentucky is coaching staff and the players. When the coaches weren't around, you talk to the players. Ask them what practices are like or other things about the program. We'll do the same thing at Mississippi State. But at Mississippi State, when you drive up the road here, the importance of Mississippi State screams out in your face. It says, 'hey folks, it's important.' You see the Palmeiro Center, you look at the stadium, the Left Field Lounge. Its importance screams out.

"But at Kentucky it's changing also. Mitch Barnhart, their athletic director, has given it a chance to change. Mitch, to his credit, has made other sports important. I think before Mitch was there, it had no chance to change. And I think it can be better. But what screams out at Lexington, Kentucky is horse racing and basketball.

"(But the importance of baseball at Mississippi State) is why its different to recruit here.But the flip side of it is this: Who is the kid who just comes to Mississippi State who doesn't want to compete, who comes to Mississippi State so that he can wear the Mississippi State shirt and be the cool guy? The number of kids who grew up with dads who are Mississippi State fans, who came here watching the games and want to be part of it, that number is much bigger than the kids at Kentucky who grew up as Kentucky baseball fans."

Because of that, your coaches had better be really good at evaluating the difference between those type kids?
"Yes, that's right. And the volunteer assistant here, Nick Minginone, who is not allowed to call and evaluate kids, can, as soon as the kid shows up on campus, be our recruiting coordinator for on-campus activity. And he is phenomenal in that area."

Speaking of Nick, he's pretty good at the short game isn't he?
"Oh, he's unbelievable. He's got one of the best presentations. And believe it or not, we had two guys on my (Kentucky) coaching staff - he and Gary Henderson - who both were guest lecturers at the ABCA Clinic in Philadelphia. And that is a pretty big deal because you are kind of an expert in your area.

"I'm really thrilled about our staff here. They know how to compete and how to evaluate, but it's still going to take come time. It's really going to take some time."

How many players do you expect to sign in the class of 2009?
"On the low end it could be 14 to 15 and on the high end it might be as high as 20. It will really depend on our evaluation this fall."

That sounds like it's going to be tough considering the numbers that you are going to sign.
"This is going to sound cliche - and I don't mean for it to - but name something that has ever been done in the history of the world that was special that wasn't tough. And we are trying to do something really special here. And the only way we are going to have something special here is to have the right players. To have the right players, this one class might be the biggest that we will ever sign here. We have to get the right players."

During the fall scrimmages, will you use cameras as a tool to evaluate your hitters and pitchers? And if so, how many will you use and where will they be placed?
"If we can get the right type of equipment, we will probably film from the center field wall. We will film every minute of the intrasquad games. You really can't teach off the film from batting practice or the bullpen. I'm a big believer that it has to happen in a game."

Why center field?
"The key camera angle is from center field because you want to see where the body is at release. The key to me is where is the hitter's body when the ball is coming out of the pitcher's hand. So, there are only two options you can have on a video viewing - from behind home plate or the center field shot. We'll do it behind home plate a little bit, but we'll mostly do it from center field."

Will you have a camera on the pitcher as well?
"Oh yeah, absolutely. The center field shot is getting them both."

We've talked about recruiting to an extent, but what exactly is your recruiting philosophy?
"Our philosophy is to be aggressive and to center on the right person. And to really let them know what we are all about.

"We have a beautiful facility. Coach Polk spent a lifetime putting this all together. We need to make some improvements, but what he has done has been terrific.

"But, we have to decide if the kid is here because of the facilities or because he wants to get better."

Have you decided who, among your staff, is going to coach the different positions?
"We are going to sit down in August and really define what the duties of our staff are going to be. And the coaches will have input into that."

There has been some talk about the Diamond Girls. What is their status? Will you continue having them?
"I met with the co-captains. They had questions and concerns. And I had questions and concerns. The Diamond Girl program is extremely important. Their significance to the program is historic. They have been wonderful. But there will be some changes. And I think the two co-captains were really positive and excited about the potential changes that we talked about."

Will there be Diamond Girls on the field next spring?
"Yes, there will."

I know there were no camps this summer due to the change in coaching staff. There has been talk that your camps will only be from the 6th grade on up. Is that true or will they go all the way down to the 1st grade like the previous coaching staff had here?
"Our camps will follow very similar parameters to what has been done here in the past. In fact, our winter camps will be almost identical to what has been done here at Mississippi State in the past. I think that Tommy Raffo, Russ McNickle, Wade Hedges and Coach Polk were really onto something in the way they ran their camps. I think they are special. I worked the camps here when I was a player here. I think it is very valuable for our student-athletes to have that experience. I think that generations of kids have come to camp here and I don't want that to stop."

Will they go all the way down to the first grade?
"I don't know what the youngest age group is, but we will probably continue with the age groups they did before."


Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing swindoll@genespage.com.


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