When John Cohen got to UK in 2003, he inherited a recruiting class that had two players. That wasn’t the program’s only problem, though. It also had the Southeastern Conference’s most antiquated facilities and most apathetic fans. Yet Cohen managed to overcome all of that and orchestrate a major turnaround of the UK baseball program.
John Shelby was lost.
The freshman – half na’ve, half nervous – was on his way to the UK baseball offices to meet his new coach, John Cohen.
Even though he was new to the campus, he thought he was going in the right direction.
He arrived at the baseball offices. He found Cohen. He even shook his hand. But he was still going in the wrong direction.
“Hey man, I’d really appreciate it if you just turned your hat around,” Cohen said to Shelby. “That’s something that’s going to be important to us.”
“The bill of your cap represents the direction in life you’re going,” Shelby recalls Cohen saying. “You can either go forward or backward.”
From that point on, Shelby wore his hat forward. And from that point on, the UK baseball program only went forward.
The turnaround was beginning.
Just what he wanted
The Cats were on the road at Georgia at the end of Cohen’s first season in 2004. A Bulldog fan wasn’t impressed with one of UK’s many walk-on pitchers, and he let him know it.
” ‘That’s the worst arm action I’ve ever seen. That’s the worst delivery I’ve ever seen from a college pitcher,’ ” Cohen remembers the fan saying. “And (UK’s pitching coach) Gary Henderson leans over to me and says, ‘That’s just because he hasn’t seen the rest of our staff yet.’ ”
That was part of the problem. There wasn’t much else to see.
At one point in his first season, the Cats were down to seven pitchers, starting rotation and bullpen combined. Florida, where Cohen had just spent two years as an assistant, had 21 pitchers.
During his time in Gainesville, the Gators played in back-to-back NCAA regionals.
UK, on the other hand, had made only five NCAA Tournament appearances in the history of the program and was coming off a 24-32 season. The Cats hadn’t even made it to the Southeastern Conference Tournament since 2000.
Cohen knew all that. In fact, he was excited by it.
“I wanted to be at a place that so many things had never been done before,” Cohen said. “I wanted the opportunity.”
But the program was in even worse shape than he thought.
At Florida, Cohen left behind one of the top five recruiting classes in the country. The recruiting class he inherited at UK had just two players, including Shelby. The class didn’t have a single pitcher.
Because former coach Keith Madison had announced his retirement early in the year, the team couldn’t go out and recruit any players. And with school starting in a few weeks, there was hardly any time for Cohen to find players who could compete at the SEC level.