John Cohen, who has directed Mississippi State to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last four seasons, including a program-record runner-up finish in the 2013 College World Series, is in his third decade in the collegiate coaching ranks and his seventh campaign as head coach in Starkville.
Regarded by many as one of the most innovative coaches in the collegiate baseball ranks, Cohen was introduced as MSU’s 16th head baseball coach on June 7, 2008, exactly 18 years to the day after leaving Omaha, Neb., and the 1990 NCAA College World Series following his final game as a MSU player.
Cohen’s return to Dudy Noble Field completed a success-filled and fast-paced circle that began when the Tuscaloosa, Ala., native first joined MSU’s baseball family as a player in 1987. He returned with 17 years of collegiate coaching experience, nine of those as a collegiate head coach. Immediately prior to his arrival back in StarkVegas, Cohen enjoyed a successful five-year run as head coach at Southeastern Conference Eastern Division foe Kentucky.
An All-SEC outfielder during his playing career at State, Cohen enters his 16th season as a collegiate head coach in 2015 with an overall record of 537-351-1, including a 216-155 record in six seasons at Mississippi State.
Including previous career coaching assignments at Missouri (1992-97), Northwestern (La.) State (1998-2001), Florida (2002-03) and Kentucky (2004-08), Cohen has been associated with teams over the past 23 seasons that have piled up 805 wins while producing more than 111 Major League Baseball Draft selections and 23 All-Americans.
His prowess as one of the nation’s top hitting instructors has mounted with each step along the way in his coaching career. That coaching expertise gained nationwide attention in 2006 when, in his third season at Kentucky, he guided the Wildcats to a remarkable worst-to-first finish in the rugged SEC. That season, UK posted a school-best 44-win season, captured the school’s first league baseball crown and brought the first NCAA regional baseball tournament to a Lexington campus noted more for its hoops prominence. With 13 top-10 draft picks over a three-year span, the Wildcats virtually rewrote the Big Blue record book, powered by the likes of All-American standout and SEC Player of the Year Ryan Strieby and All-SEC performers John Shelby and Sean Coughlin.
Cohen’s coaching efforts did not go unnoticed. He was awarded national coach of the year honors by both the College Baseball Foundation and CollegeBaseballInsider.com. In addition, he was tabbed by his peers for conference coach of the year accolades for the third time in his career.
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 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 country in double plays the last three seasons (151), while ranking third in strikeouts.
At MSU, Cohen has assembled a well-respected and highly-skilled coaching staff featuring coaches well-versed in the Maroon and White’s colorful baseball tradition, the Magnolia State’s high school and junior college programs and the nation’s top college baseball league. All the while, Cohen has continued to lay and build upon a strong foundation for success on the diamond at Mississippi State.
An annual leader nationally in college baseball attendance, Starkville’s Team has registered seven of its top nine all-time marks in baseball season-ticket sales during Cohen’s tenure, including a school-record 5,874 in 2014. In a program initiated at State by Cohen, many of those tickets are hand-delivered by MSU players to Starkville patrons each year. Cohen also organized “The Dudes” in 2012, a student support group for baseball designed to grow his program’s brand among students on campus.
Mississippi State players have received All-SEC recognition in each of Cohen’s six years at State, while 24 Diamond Dawgs have had their names called during the MLB Draft conducted the past seven seasons, including the 2012-13 first-round combo of Chris Stratton and Hunter Renfroe, the first time in history a Mississippi school produced a first rounder in consecutive drafts.
In the all-important recruiting realm, Cohen’s recruiting classes at State garnered high national acclaim. His 2009 debut recruiting class was ranked as the nation’s eighth best by Baseball America. Cohen’s second class in 2010 earned a No. 18 ranking, followed by a No. 14 ranking the following year. After a rare ranking of 37 in 2012, Cohen reeled in a No. 2 recruiting class (2013) and a No. 6-ranked group (2014) by Collegiate Baseball the last two years, marking the highest-ranked consecutive classes in school history. The No. 2 class marked the second-highest ever for the Bulldogs by Collegiate Baseball, which began ranking classes in 1983.
On the facilities front, Cohen’s enormous success in Starkville has led to the August 2014 announcement of an ambitious $40 million facility project that aims to remake Dudy Noble Field into the finest in college baseball.
The Dudy Noble Field Master Plan calls for a new double-tiered grandstand with chairback seating, an elevated concourse that encircles the playing field and allows a constant view of the game action, welcoming entry plazas, spacious restrooms, concessions, a kids’ play area, berm seating, upgraded field lighting, HD video board, digital ribbon signage, team areas (clubhouse, training room, equipment room, coaches’ offices, etc.) and dramatically improved aesthetics.
Off the field, Cohen maintains a strong commitment to excellence in the classroom, having produced a 3.0 GPA average or better in 11 of his first 13 semesters as head coach in Starkville. Led by 2014 SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year Seth Heck, the team’s 2014 fall term GPA was a 3.08, the highest of any male sport on campus. MSU’s wide lead in all-time academic all-conference awards has grown during Cohen’s term at State, with 105 selections to the SEC Academic Honor Roll in six seasons. In addition, 39 MSU newcomers received SEC First-Year Academic Honor Roll status the past six years, including a record 10 in 2014. Following the 2012 campaign, first-round draft pick Chris Stratton became the 17th Diamond Dog to receive academic All-America team honors.
Continuing a trademark that has grown during his coaching career, Cohen is a highly sought-after featured speaker and clinician. He has traveled the nation sharing his expertise at numerous baseball clinics in 30 states, including a speaking engagement at the 2010 American Baseball Coaches Association Convention, his third appearance at the annual event. Cohen has also maintained a full schedule of speaking engagements at alumni gatherings, civic organization meetings and baseball banquets on a variety of levels throughout the Magnolia State.
Cohen, the fifth MSU grad to serve as skipper at State, is one of two current SEC head baseball coaches coaching at his alma mater. He is also one of seven coaches in history to lead his alma mater to the NCAA College World Series as both a player and a coach.
Cohen, 48, is married to the former Nelle Bashinsky, also from Tuscaloosa. The couple has two daughters - Jordan Baker and Avery Lawson.
COHEN THE PLAYER
Mississippi State skipper John Cohen wears No. 11 because it’s the same number he wore during his successful collegiate career as a player at State.
Before college, Cohen was an accomplished two-sport prep athlete at Tuscaloosa Academy, earning all-state honors in both baseball and basketball. His TA hoops teams won three-straight state titles and a school-record 100-consecutive games. But it was on the baseball diamond as a four-year regular playing for coach Don McNabb that Cohen excelled.
He capped his prep career with a stellar senior season in 1985, the same year that, 84 miles away, the likes of Jeff Brantley, Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Thigpen were leading the Diamond Dawgs to a then school-best third-place finish in the NCAA College World Series.
He inked with Birmingham-Southern following his prep career, and as a rookie started in center field for the Panthers, hitting at a crisp .333 clip and earning team defensive MVP honors. On April 24, 1986, Cohen made his Dudy Noble Field debut in a Birmingham-Southern uniform, delivering a double, a triple and driving in three runs in a doubleheader split against the Bulldogs.
Cohen transferred to Mississippi State that fall, sitting out the 1987 campaign as a redshirt before beginning his SEC career playing under legendary MSU head coach Ron Polk.
He was a key contributor during the most successful three-year span in MSU’s storied baseball history. The Bulldogs advanced to an NCAA regional tournament berth in each of Cohen’s three seasons as a player, capped by a run to Omaha and the 1990 NCAA College World Series. In 1989, he helped lead the Bulldogs to the SEC championship and a school-record 54 wins. During that span, the Bulldogs compiled a 148-46 record (.763) that included two of the program’s three 50-win campaigns.
Cohen concluded his career ranked in the top 10 in several statistical categories at MSU and earned First-Team All-SEC distinction as a senior. He was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the 22nd round of the 1990 MLB Draft and played two years in the Twins’ minor league system.
COHEN THE COACH
In the fall of 1991, Cohen launched his coaching career in Columbia, Mo., where he joined coach Gene McArtor’s Missouri staff as a graduate assistant. When Tim Jamieson followed McArtor as the Tigers’ head coach after the 1995 campaign, he tabbed Cohen as his chief assistant, hitting coach and recruiting coordinator.
In 1996, Missouri won the Big Eight championship and advanced to an NCAA regional berth for the first time in 16 years. The Tigers broke nine offensive school records that season, part of 17 total records set by Cohen’s offenses over his six years in Columbia.
Following the 1997 season, Cohen headed to Natchitoches, La., for his first head coaching assignment, a four-year term at Northwestern State University. His two predecessors at NSU served as head coaches in the SEC - Arkansas’ Dave Van Horn and former Alabama skipper Jim Wells.
Under Cohen, the Demons compiled a 146-84 (.635) mark and claimed a pair of Southland Conference titles (1998 and 2001). He was named the Southland Conference Coach of the Year during both championship seasons.
His well-rounded clubs set 18 individual and team offensive records during his tenure, while his pitching staff set 10 school marks. The 1998 team posted the nation’s fifth-best team earned run average (3.82) while the 1999 edition tallied college baseball’s seventh-best fielding percentage (.967). His NSU squads also excelled in the classroom, averaging 18 players with GPAs of 3.0 or better each semester while notching 3.0 team GPAs in both 1998 and 1999.
Cohen also spearheaded a highly successful fundraising campaign for NSU’s baseball facility, Brown-Stroud Field. The ballpark’s grandstand seating increased from 298 to 1,000. All of those seats and then some were needed on April 18, 2001, when a school-record 4,214 fans watched Cohen’s Demons knock off defending-national champion LSU.
Cohen further established himself as one of college baseball’s best coaches during a successful two-year stint at Florida as an assistant coach on the staff of Gator head coach and former MSU skipper Pat McMahon. While in Gainesville, his UF hitters pulverized opposing pitching and led the SEC in nearly every offensive statistical category. In 2002, the Gators paced the SEC in nine team categories en route to a 46-19 finish and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
At Florida, Cohen coached a pair of consensus All-Americans who hit .400 and scored more than 100 runs each, Mark Kiger and SEC batting champ Pat Osborn. Cohen’s balanced UF offense also included five players hitting 10-plus home runs.
In the 2003 season, the Orange and Blue’s high-octane offense paced the SEC in five offensive categories. The Gators finished in the top five in the league for the second-straight season in batting average and Brian Rose became the third UF slugger to earn All-America honors under Cohen’s tutelage. Bolstered by its tremendous offense, UF earned its second-consecutive NCAA regional tournament berth.
Cohen’s time away from the head coaching circle was brief. After two record-setting campaigns in the Sunshine State, the Tuscaloosa native was hired as head coach at Kentucky in 2003. After a 24-30 finish in his first season at UK (2004), the Wildcats reeled off four-straight winning campaigns. In five seasons as the Wildcats’ dugout general, Cohen guided the Blue and White to unprecedented success on the diamond, guiding his teams to a 175-113-1 (.607) record while developing UK into a major player on the national scene.
Cohen’s 2006 Wildcat edition turned many heads when it rolled to a 44-17 mark, the school’s first SEC baseball title and registered the league’s first worst-to-first one-season turnaround in baseball. For his efforts, Cohen received national and conference coach of the year plaudits in 2006, a season in which UK hosted its first NCAA regional tournament.
That 2006 UK team piled up a school-record 500 runs, while his 2007 club led the SEC in eight offensive categories. The 2007 edition of the Wildcats also ranked third nationally in home runs and slugging percentage and hit for a stellar .320 average, which fell just one point shy of the school record.
The record-breaking parade continued in 2008 when UK raced to a 19-0 start and a top-five national ranking. Kentucky matched its school-best win total with a 44-19 finish and for the second time during Cohen’s term in Lexington, advanced to an NCAA regional tournament.
Cohen arrived back in Starkville in June 2008 and returned Mississippi State to the NCAA postseason scene in 2011. State recorded with an overall record of 38-25 that year, sweeping three games to capture the NCAA Atlanta Regional before pushing No. 2 national seed Florida to a third game in a dramatic Super Regional in Gainesville. A year later, the 2012 Diamond Dawgs won their seventh SEC Baseball Tournament and went on to compete in the NCAA Tallahassee Regional. The Bulldogs registered a 40-24 record for the program’s 18th 40-win campaign and State’s first since 2005.
In 2013, Cohen led State to the best finish of any sport in the history of his alma mater - a No. 2 final national ranking and a finalist finish in the NCAA College World Series. The Maroon and White finished 51-20 overall, streamrolling through the NCAA Starkville Regional and upsetting No. 6 national seed Virginia on the road to advance to the school’s ninth College World Series.
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 base knocks and paced the SEC with 20 doubles. Junior outfielder Hunter Renfroe led the SEC in both home runs and total bases, going on to be drafted 13th overall by the San Diego Padres in the June 2013 MLB Draft.
As good as MSU was offensively, the pitching and defense carried the load as much as anyone. Six pitchers had ERAs under 2.00, with a collective team ERA of 2.79 and an SEC-high 588 strikeouts. State finished second nationally with a school-record 80 double plays. Cohen’s pitchers were one of two staffs in 2013 to finish the top-10 nationally in ERA, strikeouts per nine innings and hits allowed per nine innings.
While 2014 did not end in Omaha, Cohen’s sixth season at the helm still produced successful results, ending with a fourth-straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. Mississippi State finished with an overall record of 39-24, including its best SEC mark (18-12) since going 19-11 in 1997. Including his 500th win as head coach on Feb. 16, 2014, Cohen won 38-plus games for the fourth-consecutive season, marking the first time since 1998-2001 the Bulldogs accomplished the feat. Also in that tally was the fact Cohen helped MSU win 16-plus SEC games for the third-consecutive season, marking the third time in history and the first time in 24 years it accomplished the feat (1983-85, 1988-90).
Nationally, the Diamond Dawgs continued to earn a reputation as one of the top fielding programs in the country, leading the SEC and finishing fifth in the NCAA with a school-record .981 fielding percentage in 2014. On the mound, MSU ranked top-20 in the country in strikeouts per nine innings (8.1, 13th) and shutouts (8, 19th). Bulldog pitchers allowed an SEC-low 13 home runs all season.
Overall, Cohen coached a league-high tying six All-SEC selections, placing three members on the All-SEC team, two on the All-Defensive squad and one on the All-Freshman team.
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.
THE COHEN FILE
Birthdate Sept. 21, 1966
Hometown Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Wife Nelle Cohen
Children Jordan Baker and Avery Lawson
MOST WINS AGAINST SEC OPPONENTS: 2012-2014
JOHN COHEN YEAR-BY-YEAR COACHING RECORD
COACHED AND PLAYED IN NCAA COLLEGE WORLD SERIES (14)
JOHN COHEN MISCELLANEOUS RECORDS