One on One with MSU baseball coach: John Cohen

Bo Bounds sat down with John Cohen for 30 minutes in November. Cohen shared his
vision and philosophy on building the Bulldog baseball program into a national powerhouse….again.

BB: Coach you completed your first fall practice as the head baseball coach at Mississippi State a month ago. How did it go?

CJC: It went great. We are not as good as we need to be and I know we’ll talk about the early signing period later in the interview.
The kids have really bought in on what we are trying to do. We all kind of have that common bond of having played for Ron Polk. I think that has made the transition a lot smoother. I think our kids have an idea of what our expectations are, and they’ve given great effort. I expect them to compete at a high level.

BB: Have you identified your leaders for the 2009 season?

CJC: Yes, I think we identified some leaders. We’re just not as good in certain areas as we need to be in the future. This team will have to overachieve – in order for us to do some things in SEC play. In order to do that – we have to have leaders.
I think Ricky Bowne is a young man on the mound who is a great leader for us. I think Conner Powers, who is a junior 3rd baseman for us, and could be a decent draft pick for us this spring can lead. He can provide some leadership for us. I’m cautiously optimistic.

BB: Looking at where the program is today. How important is recruiting in college baseball?

CJC: To be honest with you, I think 80% of the success in your program depends on the players you choose to come into the program. The evaluation process is critical. Player development is important, and you have to lead from the top – There has to be a sense of urgency everyday at practice. But if you have a 7.2 60 runner there’s no way you’re going to make that guy into a 6.6 runner. You can make him a little faster, but not a lot. You can’t make a guy who throws 78mph from the left side throw 92 the next year. You have to get the right components in place in terms of skill level. What’s amazing is kids who have high skill level, usually have confidence to go along with that because they possess that skill. That’s an area; quite frankly, we are a little short in right now. But I think we’ll be able to play a brand of baseball that might be able to tie them together and we might be able to overachieve this year.

BB: Feedback from young guys since June?

CJC: That was a concern for me, because my personality, and my staffs are so much different than what these kids are use too. That’s not a knock on the previous staff. There’s not one way to do things. Its been great. I was reading the paper this morning and Ricky Bowen, one our pitchers, gave me the ultimate complement he said “you don’t like Coach Cohen when he’s sitting across from you, but you really like him when he’s on your bench – When he’s on your side.” That’s how I want all our players to be. Somebody you don’t like to compete against, but boy, you like competing with them. Hopefully, we are creating that environment. It’s the only way I know how to coach. I’ve been given some very valuable information both as a player and coach from Ron Polk. I think he’s one of the great jewels in the history of college baseball. I also have my own style….I think the transition has been much better than I could have ever hoped for.

BB: Selling, marketing and packaging the MSU baseball program you know all about it because you played here. I have to believe that’s been an asset as far as getting out and getting on the ground to sell MSU. How has

CJC: Yes, it’s different than when I decided to come to school here. Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark had just left – that was a big deal. To put it bluntly, Mississippi State has the 10th best winning percentage in the SEC the last six years. No matter how you slice it, that’s been used against us during the recruiting process. It’s not a real fair assessment, because we have a brand new coaching staff and new style of doing things, but it’s something we have had to weather. We do have an unbelievable tradition of sending guys to the big leagues, but we need new Will Clark’s and Rafael Palmeiro’s and Bobby Thigpen’s and Jeff Brantley’s. Obviously (Jonathan) Papelbon is a star and we’re really pleased with his success. And that’s a bright spot for us, but we need to catch back up in those areas.

BB: With the book Moneyball it showed us a different way to look at the game. The program is in the process of attaining a new computer system – what is your philosophy when it comes to computers and stats in baseball?

CJC: The thing I loved about Moneyball, and that it pointed out – getting to 1st base is everything. It doesn’t matter how. You need to get to 1st base. It’s a critical component of offense and I think that book did a nice job with it. I think the other thing Moneyball pointed out – prospects aren’t necessarily great players – kids who are winners, kids who have a great understanding of what works in that environment….in that ballpark, in that system, those are kids that can really help you win. You need the nice combination of kids who have dominant skill, but also intellect, that understanding of how to win. That’s where the system comes into play.
As far as the computer stuff, Greg Byrne our new athletic director has a good understanding that this is a new age. We watch video every single day with our players. To do it right, we have to have software that isolates video, and does the work of five or six guys. We’ve spent 30-40k on software equipment, and we need to catch up to the football and basketball programs. They are very video oriented and we need to be that way, too.

BB: How does the competition from USM and Ole Miss impact MSU?

CJC: That’s where Lane Burroughs fits in. He was the recruiting coordinator for 7 of the 9 trips that Southern Miss made to regionals. Lane was doing such an awesome job in the state of Mississippi, and Butch Thompson from Amory, MS, comes in adding a couple of top-5 ranked classes at Auburn. In fact, Butch Thompson had some top-10 recruiting classes at Georgia. Ole Miss has made jumps under Mike Bianco. Corky Palmer has done a great job at Southern Miss. Mississippi is the most important place to us, but if Mississippi doesn’t have the right player for us, we will go out of state. This program demands that.

BB: How does a Fresno State win a national championship out of nowhere?

CJC: Well, it’s kind of a confluence of events throughout the year. Who’s healthy? Who’s getting better late in the year? Who are you matched up with? The regionals are so geographically biased. The talent so much more dispersed
I remember as a player here at Mississippi State, we had 45-50 players on the team. And I can remember looking at our third string, 3rd baseman thinking this guy could play anywhere. Now, 20 years later, those kids go to the mid-major programs. They’re not going to go to a place and not get a chance to play.
With the evaluation process you can’t make mistakes. Who’s coaching the mid-majors? Well, they are all assistants of the guys who are coaching the majors. That’s why it’s the best country in the world. Everything is elevated all the time. The people who don’t adjust to it are the people that get run-over. The people that are constantly adjusting are the people that are very, very successful. That’s the kind of person I want to be.

BB: If you played this weekend – who would be in your starting rotation?

CJC: Ricky Bowen will be a guy that will be in the mix. He was dominant in the fall. I think he’s poised. Don’t know what day he’ll pitch, but he’s right there. He’s mature enough at this stage to really handle that role.
Forrest Moore is a young man who has come a long way. He was limited last year. It’s tough as a freshman to step in this league be successful. I think Michael Busby is a young man who might pitch for us on Sunday. His velocity has been 92-94. He’s got a good breaking ball, good change up. I would say those three have separated themselves in terms of starting. We have some other options. You just never know.

BB: Tell us about fall 2008 recruiting. How did it go?

CJC: What Lane Burroughs and Butch Thompson have done is awesome. We wanted to increase our level of athleticism. If you look at our recruiting class its: big, physical and athletic. That’s something we really wanted to improve upon. There’s some speed. We want the opportunity to win games in different ways. Whether it’s hitting the ball out of the ballpark we want to be able to do that. Or run and shorten the game. Our ballpark plays as the 2nd biggest pall bark in the SEC. We really needed some pitching depth, and I think we accomplished that. We signed seven arms, and five are left handed pitchers. Really pleased with what’s happened in the early signing period.

BB: The expectations haven’t been met in baseball for some time. What time frame is realistic to get this program back on the national stage?

CJC: At the very least, we need two strong recruiting classes. That’s what really launches you. I’m not making any kind of commentary on what we have now. But, it’s pretty obvious we were a 9-21 baseball team last year in league play. We have some areas we really have to improve upon. I think it’s very realistic to look at a three year plan to get the talent level that we need. And that doesn’t mean for one minute that we are not going to compete our hearts out. And we are talking to our kids about pushing themselves to the limit and trying to get to the College World Series. In order to get there, we are going to need some firepower. This year’s club is really going to have to overachieve to get us to that level.

BB: Did you see significant improvement at the plate in fall ball?

CJC: I think so. We can’t be a fly ball oriented ball club at Dudy Noble Field. The ball just doesn’t fly here. We have to be a gap-to-gap, pressure you with our feet ball club. We are going to play a different brand of baseball. We absolutely have too – too maximize what this club has.

BB: How is recruiting for next year going?

CJC: Well we already have some commitments. Recruiting never ends. Recruiting never rests. Again, I want to credit my staff they are on top of it. We want to get the best players out there and it starts right now. That’s why I’m amazed at how well we did with this class that just signed. We started in June. Just the relationship part of it was amazing. It’s really a two year span for a class. Now, we are constantly inviting juniors from all over the country to come see our campus and evaluate them – who they are as people. That is a two year process. We crammed it into a five month period for this class. I’m super impressed with our coaches. I love the kids we have coming in, and I really expect next year crew to be even better. It will be smaller just because of the nature of the 27-man roster, but it will be quality for sure.

BB: What does it mean to you and your family to come back home?

CJC: Everything. This is such a special place. It was tough to leave Kentucky, but I absolutely could not pass up this opportunity. My wife, Nelle, her parents are over in Tuscaloosa, along with my mom. My hair stands up when I drive up to Dudy Noble Field. My only regret is my Dad is not here to see this. We are so excited about coming home to lead this great program.

Bo Bounds is the host of The Out of Bounds show on Supersport 930AM in Jackson, MS. You can contact Bo in the sports think tank: [email protected]