Early in the winter of 2013, Mississippi State baseball announced, ‘We’re Back.’
By the summer of the same year, John Cohen not only had his alma mater back, but perhaps better than it has ever been.
One of college baseball’s most storied programs, Cohen took over MSU in the summer of 2008 at perhaps its lowest point in half a century. Legendary coach Ron Polk had retired and Cohen inherited a team which had only won 23 games, just nine in the SEC.
Sure, the task of rebuilding was daunting, seemingly akin to standing at the base of Everest, searching for a summit hidden in the clouds.
But Cohen had done it before. In the same Southeastern Conference, no less.
In 2003, the University of Kentucky hired Cohen in hopes of turning around a reeling program, one that had never seen sustained success. After his inaugural season, Cohen took a perennial conference basement team and reeled off four-straight winning seasons.
And not only did his teams improve, the 2006 club won the school’s first-ever SEC Championship, as Cohen was named both National and SEC Coach of the Year, taking the Wildcats from worst-to-first in the nation’s toughest league. By his final season in Lexington, Cohen had his team 19-0 to start the campaign, earning a top-five ranking, yet another first.
Given time, Cohen showed he could rebuild a program. The same reason his former school asked him to return and resurrect the proud Bulldog tradition. Bring back the crowds, play into the depths of summer and make the familiar pilgrimage to Omaha.
Just as he had done before, Cohen began to mold his team. On the first day, he went to recruits, telling them they could be a part of bringing MSU back. They could play in the College World Series. They could play for a National Championship.
Whether by luck, design or brute willpower, Cohen was true to his word.
Following two seasons of some improvement, the Bulldogs broke through in 2011, not only reaching an NCAA Regional, but making it all the way to the final game of a Super Regional, just three outs short of Omaha.
2012, another postseason, another Regional. MSU was close.
Then, in 2013, Cohen led his team to the greatest season in school history.
And it was no fluke, as the Bulldogs made their first-ever appearance in the Championship Series of the College World Series, racking up 51 wins along the way.
The trip to Omaha, just as Cohen had promised, was made.
The crowds? Not only did they return, but they brought even more with them as an all-time record 547,266 fans streamed through the gates to watch the Bulldogs play in 2013.
And again, the return to the top was anything but an accident or dumb luck.
Not only were an impressive seven players off the 2013 team drafted, four of them went in the top 10 rounds. Cohen built a roster deep with talent.
Talent, of course, he and his staff developed, molding them like clay, turning potential to production.
At the plate, his Bulldogs racked up a school-record 713 hits, good for third in the country, while junior shortstop Adam Frazier led the NCAA with 107 hits and paced the SEC with 20 doubles. Junior outfielder Hunter Renfroe led the SEC in both home runs and total bases, while finishing second in the conference with an impressive .620 slugging percentage.
MSU was at or near the top of the conference in seemingly every offensive category, but the defense carried the load as much as anyone.
Sophomore Ross Mitchell not only led the NCAA, but set an MSU record with 13 wins in relief in 2013.
Yet another sophomore, closer Jonathan Holder tied an MSU record with 21 saves in just one season, smashing the previous school-record of 13.
Six pitchers had ERAs under 2.00, with a collective team ERA of 2.79 and an SEC-high 588 strikeouts. Cohen’s mix of youth and experienced seniors proved his ability to recruit, develop and coach any position on the field.
Asked about fielding, Cohen chalks it up to “just throwing and catching,” though if it were really so simple, far more would be able to do his job.
Technique, awareness, guidance and preparedness helped Cohen’s club tally a record 80 double plays over the course of the 2013 season, racking up record highs in putouts – 1,927 – and assists – 834.
At each coaching stop in his career, MSU’s skipper has had an adaptability factor like no other. At smaller ballparks where offense was critical to each teams’ success, Cohen excelled. In his time at each campus, the Tuscaloosa, Ala., native broke the single-season school runs record at Northwestern State (1999), Florida (2002) and Kentucky (2006 and 2008).
As the hitting coach at Missouri in 1996, the Tigers broke the school record for hits (659) and doubles (144). In the same position at Florida in 2002, the Gators led the country in hits (825) and ranked second nationally in average (.346), runs per game (9.74) and home runs per game (1.71). Cohen’s hitters also set or tied 41 total offensive school records (20 team/21 individual).
When Cohen was coaching at bigger ballparks, he adjusted accordingly. His Northwestern State pitching staffs set 10 school records from 1998-2001 as Cohen took home two Southland Conference championships and Coach of the Year honors. In Starkville at the spacious Dudy Noble Field, Cohen’s pitching staff enters 2014 leading the the country in double plays the last two seasons (151), while being one of two teams nationally last year to finish in the top-10 in ERA, strikeouts per nine innings and hits allowed per nine innings.
In a numbers game, Cohen’s accomplishments are clear, but his impact goes beyond wins and losses or strikeouts and home runs.
The best thing about Mississippi State, Cohen has said, is the people. And the people on his team were the stars of the 2013 College World Series, not just for talent, but for personality and success.
In addition to multiple All-Americans and several more All-SEC players, a record-high 23 Bulldogs were named Academic All-SEC, tops in the conference by a wide margin.
Three had 4.0 GPAs while 24 different players had at least a 3.0 GPA, adding up to a 3.25 full-team GPA during the spring semester when the World Series run began.
Senior Sam Frost was the SEC Baseball Scholar-Athlete of the Year and senior Kendall Graveman was Academic All-SEC for the fourth time in as many years, winning the Newsom Academic Award.
Cohen, wherever he has been, has proven himself as a rebuilder of programs, a coach capable of sustaining success, winning championships and developing both players and people. A trend has developed where after year two, when he had his second recruiting class on the field and freshmen became sophomores, his success skyrocketed.
In his first two years at Kentucky and Mississippi State combined, his teams were a combined 101-119 (.459). In years 3-5 combined in Lexington and Starkville, Cohen went 256-124-1 (.673), with five trips to the NCAA Tournament, two SEC Championships and a trip to the College World Series.
Just as he predicted at the bottom of the mountain in 2008, Cohen now has Mississippi State at the summit. They’re back.
THE JOHN COHEN FILE