Cohen would not offer any names as far as who is definitely planning to return for the next school year, who intends to leave State or give up baseball to be a student, and who is in-between. Because, "It's not as cut-and-dried as people might think it is," Cohen explained, comparing these coach-player meetings to what a student-teacher or employee-boss might have when things are unsatisfactory in their program/school/business. And after a 25-29 season, a 9-21 SEC mark and failure to qualify for the SEC Tournament, the Mississippi State situation satisfies nobody.
"I'm not going to be able to go into detail but I think it was really productive," said Cohen. "Everybody in our program recognizes that we need to make some big changes, in a lot of different areas. But I think our kids understand exactly where we are and where we're going." So now for a few weeks, even months, it is up to those players to decide for themselves where their own college and baseball careers are going. "But we have kids who are very savvy and completely understand how college baseball works. I can't (give names) just yet, because I don't think any of them were not given the right to attend Mississippi State next year. I'm really not sure who will be back this fall, some of this is going to take some time to shake out."
For all the urgency in this rebuilding process, the coaching staff is willing to give the 26 underclassmen some time. Certainly Cohen had no intention of pressing the issue during the individual meetings where he offered the staff's evaluations of where each stood on the projected '10 club, what their options were, and how State would help with whatever the decision was. It is what a Dog deserves after, as Cohen put it, "worked your tail off at Mississippi State. Then we're going to move.
"And I can't drop that on them and expect an answer in five minutes. There are some deep breaths involved."
But the only turning-blue has been over the state of State baseball, and that is more than a one-year matter. For the first time since the SEC Tournament began in 1977, the Diamond Dogs will be absent for consecutive seasons and the fourth time in six years. Having faced MSU the last five years from his vantage point in the Kentucky dugout, Cohen had a good idea how far his old program had slid down the league ladder. Though he says now he got a real heads-up last summer from a couple of Bulldogs.
"I'm not going to mention any names, I had two players walk into this office and say ‘I want to forfeit my scholarship right now if you can go get us quality pitching," Cohen recalled. "When kids say that to you the first thing you say is my God, is it worse than I thought on the mound?!
"But it also sends a message that our kids get it. They understand what is going on in our league and around our country, so having these conversations is easier now than it was 12, 13 years ago." Easier in the big-picture sense that is; things get much more personal when it is the player's place in that picture that is being settled. Or, perhaps, erased. This is never easy, as Cohen has learned in building up one SEC program from next to nothing.
At Mississippi State it is a matter of rebuilding. And "The kids get it because they want to win."
Who those kids will be in '10 will be decided in the coming weeks and months. Per NCAA rules, the number receiving scholarship aid drops to the final total of 27 this year with up to eight more players ‘branded' as walk-ons. "All of the guys are aware of that," Cohen said.
Specifically the 26 potential returnees which includes a couple who were redshirted this past year. The reason for individual concerns by these goes beyond starting jobs and rotation roles though, because Cohen has already signed 16 players (14 in fall, two so far in spring) and will likely add a couple more. So there could be as many as 42 players contending for the 35—or if on grant, 27—allotted slots. Though that high figure is unlikely. The June 9-11 Major League draft is coming up for one thing.
"I don't think the draft is going to affect us as much as we thought at one time," Cohen said. "We're talking two, maybe three guys out of 16." Then again this does not count the expected drafting of first baseman Connor Powers after his 19 home runs this junior season. As of now Cohen sees Powers, who only played one year at that corner, having his name called anywhere from the fifth to the 16 round based on scouts' reports. That would be high enough for the junior to take a decent offer, and besides Powers' scholarship has already been divided up among newcomers.
Not that those who are not going to get any athletic aid will be ‘lesser' members of the roster for it. On the contrary. "I think we had the best centerfielder (Grant Hogue) in the Southeastern Conference and he was a walk-on," Cohen said. "I hate to think where we'd be this year without Scott DeLoach who finished fourth or fifth in hitting in conference play. Kids clearly understand the amount of or if you're even on scholarship is immaterial, and I think Coach (Ron) Polk did a great job of explaining that. Some of the greatest players in the history of this program were walk-on guys. Sawyer Carroll who played for me at Kentucky was the first consensus All-American in the history of the program, a third-round draft pick, and he was on no money his junior year."
Obviously if Powers decided in late summer he wanted to play another year at Dudy Noble Field, well, Cohen would make a place. At the same time State must allow for having high school or junior college signees opting to turn pro now or failing to qualify for college. Cohen said he expects to sign two more players this summer, either two jucos or one JC product and a high schooler. All of these things compound the calculations.
"It's a complicated issue, and I don't want Mississippi State left holding the bag. The program is more important than one or two guys. We're going to get to the truth and protect the program." Which might mean making some close calls in the coming days, too. For instance, Cohen might have more quickly brought a shaky infield up to SEC-standard faster by inking even more JC players right now. In '09 retrospect he said he might should have gone that way with pitching last summer. Yet this would come at the cost of quality prep talent that may take a year longer to develop but will give State at least two and even three years of successful SEC service.
"We just felt they are going to be so good in two years we can't walk away from the opportunity and get one year of service from a junior college guy. These are the things you're constantly analyzing."
What doesn't need a lot of expert-analyzing is where Mississippi State is in need of major upgrades. Cohen is still surprised, and impressed, by what the 2009 squad achieved on offense with all the pre-season questions. And the outfield was definitely of conference-caliber. "We had seven outfielders who could have played for 80% of Division-I teams," Cohen said, frustrated though by the imbalanced roster he inherited. "Yet our pitching is arguably the weakest part of our club and statistically the worst in the SEC I think." Which confirmed the fears of those anonymous Bulldogs who offered to take the financial hit to help the team.
"That's a pretty big statement when you think about it and I deeply appreciate what those kids were willing to do. Now it was June and go out and get a SEC-caliber pitcher a month-and-a-half before school starts, that's a task! The first thing that gets zapped up in the early period is pitching, the second thing is that guy behind the plate that can control the running game, the third thing the guys in the middle of the field."
All are areas that Cohen and staff addressed with their first real recruiting year. Of course those are also areas where State returns just about every active player from the season-past. Which means that several veterans understand they will have to fight even harder just to hold jobs and roles with no certainty of success in fall practices. This was explained clearly by Cohen who said the only ways to address weaknesses are for returning players to get better or new players take over.
The encouraging thing though is no Bulldog questions this situation or how it is to be corrected to Mississippi State's satisfaction. Even, Cohen said, if this means shaking up the roster. This might mean chaos in a full-scholarship sport. "What separates baseball from other sports is this: kids want to play and in some other sports kids say I don't think I'm ever going to play but I'd like to have my schooling paid for, because they are full-ride sports. This is not one. Kids are willing to come and play college baseball on non-full-rides because A) they don't exist, and B) because they want to play. They don't come for the amount of scholarship, so if they're not playing most want to create an avenue where they will play."
Put another way, Cohen added, this exemplifies the cultural attitude of ‘upward mobility' and shows why baseball is different. Very, very few baseball players are content riding pine every game for their college careers regardless if they are getting financial aid to be there or not.
"In baseball the rationale is I'm putting so much into this from a financial and time standpoint, I want to play professional baseball, I want to get to place I'm guaranteed 200 at-bats or to pitch 80-100 innings. That's why in my opinion for along period of time there were so many transfers in college baseball. It doesn't make baseball bad, it's symbolic of upward mobility. Everybody wants a better situation for themselves and that's not a harmful thing all the time."
But, the coach adds, nobody in team or individual meetings is hanging blame on a particular player, a coach, an approach, whatever.
"It's not the players' fault, by the same token I assume full responsibility from the moment I walk in the door for the production of this team, but I don't fully think it's our coaching staff's fault either. There just is no blame, there is where we are right now and how do we move forward? And that's why the conversations are challenging."
Then again the entire 2009 season was challenging for Cohen, who knew nothing but success and championships when he wore a Diamond Dog uniform. While "everything was expected" he said of the struggles, this didn't make it fun. And yes, he confesses that he made his own mistakes in coaching games and selecting lineups along the first-year way. It's just the nature of the game.
"When Kentucky won 44 games and the first SEC Championship I made mistakes in that season. When we end up winning the national championship here at Mississippi State I will have made mistakes during that year as well. It's important for me to say that to my players." As for some things he said after games to media about the overall ability of the '09 team, well, Cohen would take those back."
"In a heartbeat. But I think our players understand the competitive nature of the head coach and assistant coaches. Our returning players have a huge advantage, they can make a big jump because they understand what the expectation level is on a daily basis.
"But every morning I'm honored, thrilled to be able to come to this office and be part of this University, and I have no doubts whatsoever we will win at the highest level. And that was something every one of our seniors said. They said a lot of things were difficult about this year, Coach, but we know one thing, you're going to win and Mississippi State is going to win. And that makes it worthwhile for me because they can recognize the direction that we're headed."
The real regret Cohen has from his first year is that many of those who gave the most won't be around to see the success start. As he said following the season-ending game, he felt "horrible" for the seniors. But those graduates won't have to battle for jobs against a premium class of recruits that, by Cohen's calculations, had a 438-137 combined record in their last high school/junior college seasons.
"To be honest that's not uncommon but winning is a part of the process."
The health situation among all veterans is excellent on the whole. Three players are booked for summer surgeries to clean up some conditions. P/IF Paxton Pace will have elbow scar tissue from a previous surgery removed, P Caleb Reed have his problematic left (non throwing) shoulder fixed, and SS Ryan Powers will take care of the right (throwing) hand that was broken by a pitch—a wild one behind his head that hit the hand holding the bat--at Georgia. "He showed a tremendous amount of courage playing through that," Cohen said.
"I'm really pleased with the injury situation. Talk about going through a year without hamstrings, I think the condition our players were in we had very few physical situations." Hopefully there are no new bad breaks among all the Dogs heading out to play summer baseball. Dawgs' Bite will update that list as provided by assistant Lane Burroughs.
Meanwhile Cohen and aide Tyler Bratton are working on the 2010 schedule, which will have a markedly different look in every way. First, with the paucity of midweek games in general and on the road in particular; as of now there will be only one week day contest during the class schedule, which will help ease the academic burdens of a spring semester. As of now there are 34 home games out of the total 56, which means only seven non-conference games away from Dudy Noble Field.
And three of those will be in State's ‘home away from home' as the Bulldogs take on in-state rivals Ole Miss, Southern Mississippi, and Jackson State in Pearl's Trustmark Park.
Back on campus the lineup is much more attractive to the eye, with Michigan State coming to Dudy Noble Field. The NCAA has given baseball back another week in February which means sunbelt programs are suddenly scrambling to find good matchups with traveling teams. St. John's and Washington are two possible visitors, Cohen said, along with maybe resuming the series with Tulane. "We're still working on that. And we'll play UCLA and Oklahoma in a tournament hosted by Texas A&M-Corpus Christi." That meet is sponsored by WhataBurger, an interesting notion given Cohen's stress on player diets and conditioning.
What is not in great or even good condition now is Dudy Noble Field itself. The 2009 spring has been notable for wet weekends yet even so State's playing surface took a beating for four soggy months. The good news is that bids have been let out for fixing things. Everything.
"I'm feeling very good the whole field is going to be ripped-out and we'll have new grass, new drainage and irrigation. And we have a drawing that the whole plan is older than 1975, it's pretty obvious our field holds water great!"
Besides the field Cohen will be discussing upgrades, improvements, and additions to Polk-Dement Stadium. When he played here State was the national standard; now the proud program has fallen far behind and the coach wants to do better than play catch-up. One Cohen idea is finding a way to knock out the wall behind home plate and extend seating to field-level; others have their own suggestions ranging from decorative to rebuilding and replacing. Certainly the press box is a priority given the demands of ESPN when their new SEC coverage packages begin next school year, as well as the ambition to get back to hosting regionals regularly.
The locker room also needs a total renovation, not just the sort of facelifts done over the last 22 years. Cohen likes tradition but not "ancient stuff that has got to be fixed. It's a priority." He will be discussing these areas along with marketing and P.R. ideas with athletic director Greg Byrne Wednesday with a ‘powerpoint' presentation the coach has prepared. "It's only 27 pages long!" he grinned. "There are a lot of changes we need to make, we have an incredible foundation to be successful in the future, but our administration recognizes there are a lot of things that need to be done. We have so many things we have to get accomplished. We're going to fix every part of this program."
Which certainly sounds like the sort of prospectus a wise investor could put some real stock in.