Cohen Talks Diamond Dog Fall Ball

John Cohen is a busy Bulldog. So are his assistant coaches, his administrative aides, and everybody involved with the Diamond Dogs. From the day he took charge of the program he played for in 1988-90, Cohen has set a hard, fast pace whether in organizing, preparing, recruiting, training…and yes, practicing. This week the head coach carved out some afternoon minutes to discuss how fall camp went.

(Note: an extended version of this interview including position evaluations will appear in Dawgs' Bite Magazine, mailed in early December.)

DB: Have you had any time to pause the pace since taking this job?

Cohen: "Oh, a little bit. There are those times I'll drive up to the stadium or walk through the gates and I'll say wow, I'm really here, I'm really at Mississippi State! And it'll send chills up your spine."

DB: So the excitement hasn't worn off yet!

Cohen: "Yeah. I was driving to work one day, and my favorite song is by Jon Bon Jovi, it goes ‘Who says you can't go home?' The next line is ‘there's only one place they say you're one of their own.' It really kind of hit me, no matter where you work in life there is really only one place you can be where they say hey, you're one of us, one of our own. And I consider it a real privilege to be here.

"Then all of a sudden you get right into the middle of the 25 guys you're recruiting, that we're so far away from where I want to be right now in development of our players, and everything you want to get accomplished here… You zoom right back into focus immediately."

DB: What is a very general overview of fall practices?

Cohen: "I think it went great from the standpoint that any time you take over a program you're concerned because the level of aggressiveness our staff has can repel, and it can attract. I've seen this everywhere I've been. People look at you like ‘this can't be done, what you're asking us to do can't be done.' And there's that moment when snap! It gets done and they say wow, this actually can be done.

DB: How did these players respond?

Cohen: "I think it's been great. And it could have gone either way. But I think also there is a little bit of ‘shock' value. The greatest compliment I've ever gotten is from a coach I coached against long ago. He described me to another friend of mine, he said on the other side you can't stand that guy but you really want him in your dugout! And I think our players have a little bit of that mentally; like ‘man I couldn't stand that guy when he's on the other side, but when he's on your side he's a different guy. I think they're starting to get that part, really."

DB: Is if fair to say that was your first fall priority, introducing yourself and your working style to them?

Cohen: "Yeah, in fact it's funny you mention that. This is an idea (assistant coach) Nick Mingione had. All of us at our second meeting did a power-point on ourselves, to introduce ourselves! This is mine. (turning to the office overhead screen and showing a series of shots) It showed all the places I've been. I talked about how much this place, Mississippi State, meant to me, how much Coach Polk meant to me. How I've been privileged to be at five programs and this is one of the few places where this kind of stuff happens, a great stadium packed for a game.

"I introduced them to my family. Here are two of my favorite quotes by one of my favorite presidents, John F. Kennedy. My favorite quote of all time: "Our most basic common link is we all inhabit a small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's future, and we're all mortal." Of course I idolized Bear Bryant and I reference him all the time. "When you make mistakes, three things you should do about it. Admit it, learn from it, don't repeat it." I showed my favorite things: I'm always wearing sunglasses, I love fried catfish, that's my dog. I was a ‘West Wing' fanatic and my favorite movie is ‘Godfather II' My favorite place to go is the beach, and I've taken my daughters twice, ever! And my favorite actor, I don't think half the players knew who it was, Paul Giamatti."

DB: Seeing all that it's almost as if you were re-recruiting the team.

Cohen: "You know, I wasn't concerned about recruiting them; what I was concerned about was showing them who I was and totally being honest. I don't ever want a player to come back to me and say you didn't tell me this or make me aware of this. I want them to be aware of everything. And this (turning back to the screen) is what I told them I want more than anything. It's a national championship ring."

DB: After the introductions, what were the on-field priorities you set for fall?

Cohen: "We had a lot of injuries coming in, and I wanted the guys to know is I don't want excuses now. Some injuries you can't do anything about, but I think a lot of injuries are avoidable. Just like illnesses. For 18-to-22 year-olds, maybe they get sick because they're not taking care of their bodies the right way and eating the right things. I just want them to take total responsibility for every part of their lives.

"You know, we live in one of the fattest states in America. You can say we eat poorly; or you can say I'm a baseball player and I have the means to cook for myself or order the right things. We took our players to a grocery store! We've brought in a nutritionist, we've tried to do everything the right way. We've just killed it in the weightroom and their bodies have changed for the better.

"We just don't want to leave anything to chance, we want them to be accountable. We want them to think about every decision they make."

DB: What injuries are you concerned about going into winter work?

Cohen: "Cody Freeman is a big deal for us. A shoulder injury is a difficult thing to recover from, that changes our plans a little bit if he can't throw. Paxton Pace, it's a huge difference if he's available or not. He's worked his tail off the past year to get ready for this. Chad Crosswhite was injured for a while, he's back and we need to keep him healthy for us to have success. Those are the ones that jump out."

DB: Having played against State last season, and now worked with this team, what is your impression?

Cohen: "They are much more competitive kids than I thought they were. Down deep inside, the group as a whole is much more competitive than what I saw at that point. And I'm a big believer that you recruit competitiveness. Arm strength can get better, certainly your swing can get better, but if a kid doesn't bring a certain ‘root' of competitiveness it's going to be impossible to reach him. And I tell our players if you don't compete the way our staff competes, it's going to be hard for us to connect with you.

"And this fall it jumped out at me how much these kids wanted to be pushed and wanted to compete. They didn't know that, but they did want it. We're not going to have the most talented team in the league, but I think this group has a chance to compete at a very high level."

DB: So after fall practices and scrimmage games what are some strengths of this team?

Cohen: "I think our kids will compete above our talent level. And I wasn't sure of that when I stepped in; now I know that. We will be able to compete above what our means are.

"Ricky Bowen is definitely a strength. I'd be surprised if he can't give us six or seven innings, 80 to 125 pitches every time out. I love the way he competes. And that's another guy who from the other dugout you don't know how good a competitor he is; now I know what a great a competitor that guy is. He's showing it every day.

"I think we're going to be able to pressure some people with the short game. I think we're going to be able to pressure some people because we have some athletes who can run. I think we're going to be able to attack some people because of the way we can handle the running game from a defensive standpoint. Outfield defense is going to be a strength, I think we're going to be able to get to some balls in the outfield. We have the capability to put guys out there who can really run.

"I think we have a solid foundation for an infield defense, though we're not 100% sure where the catching-first base deal is going to take us; guys who touch the baseball every play. Which is a concern, but at the same time I think we have a foundation that will take us in a good direction. And I feel really comfortable with three or four guys who might be able to log a lot of innings for us."

"The outfield is definitely where we have the most depth. Grant Hogue has really been excellent, he's a power runner we've done everything to exploit every part of his speed."

DB: What are some early evaluations of the offense?

Cohen: "Well, power is not going to be the strength of this club. I think we'll put two or three guys in the lineup who are real threats, the rest of it is hopefully guys who can run and put pressure with their feet."

DB: What are areas you will focus on over the winter?

Cohen: "We don't need to have the attitude let's sit back and not get hurt; they need to go out and ‘attack' their bodies, continuing to push themselves in the weightroom, in running. You know, coaches have asked me many times why I have our players dive at the beginning of practice. My answer is you get hurt doing things in a game you haven't prepared for in practice. We're going to push ourselves to the limit so the game is easy. I've never had a player hurt in a dive in practice. I've never had a player hurt, ever, getting hit by a pitch in 16 years. And by the way, I think we had close to 80 hit-by-pitches in 27 intrasquad games."

"We give our kids a ton of information, I think they have a pretty good understanding of the direction we're trying to head. They just need to keep pushing themselves when we're not around. You know, it's the violin lesson. The kid that just goes to violin lessons and doesn't get any better, and the kid that goes home and practices the six days in-between lessons and takes off. It's the same way in baseball."

DB: And you know about violin lessons?

Cohen: "I did! I did take lessons when I was a kid, I think for about three or four months. Then I literally just couldn't do it. And of course as an adult you wish you had a musical skill of some kind."

DB: When does the spring semester work begin?

Cohen: "We start the first day of class, which I think is January 4th or 5th. We can't start team practice until February 1st, that's the new rule."

DB: Think you'll find any chances for a holiday break?

Cohen: "I really want to take advantage that we're so close and I'm just a huge fan of the Gulf Coast, I guess because as a kid like everybody else you'd go down to L.A., Lower Alabama, to the beach. It's something I really missed not having the opportunity to do. So I think we're going to do that at Thanksgiving, which will be a lot of fun."

DB: And your girls say ‘thanks Dad for taking us to the beach late in the year'!

Cohen: "Yeah, well, it ain't like being in Kentucky in the winter!"

DB: Tell them there's something kind of like a beach by that big river at Omaha.

Cohen: "Exactly. And that's where we want to be."

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