By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal
STARKVILLE – Growing up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., John Cohen would watch with rapt attention a television show featuring a man by the name of Paul “Bear” Bryant.
One thing the famous Alabama football coach said stuck in Cohen’s mind: “If we lose, it’s my fault.” Cohen, now in his second season as Mississippi State’s baseball coach, has adopted that philosophy and won’t dare shift blame off his shoulders, even if it’s justifiable.
After his Bulldogs were swept at home by Arkansas last weekend, Cohen had strong words concerning the current state of the program.
“I’m embarrassed. Not by our players, I’m embarrassed by where our program is right now,” he said. “There are others who should be embarrassed as well. I’m not going to list them.”
It would be easy to read into that statement that Cohen was pointing a finger at the previous regime, which was led by the legendary Ron Polk, who coached Cohen at MSU more than 20 years ago.
After all, the talent cupboard was not well-stocked when Cohen arrived. In Polk’s final season, State finished 23-32 and 9-20 in SEC play. A year after reaching the College World Series, MSU didn’t even make the SEC Tournament.
In Cohen’s first season, State went 25-29 (9-20), the first time since 1974-75 that it had suffered back-to-back sub-.500 campaigns.
“You don’t get to 23-32 overnight, and you don’t get out of it overnight, and everybody knows that,” Cohen said on Wednesday. “If you look at the history of the league over the last 25 years, that doesn’t happen very often. … There are a lot of things that have to happen for you to get to that number.”
MSU is 17-16 overall, 3-9 in SEC play heading into this weekend’s home series versus Tennessee (17-17, 3-9).
In clarifying his comments from Sunday, Cohen emphasized that he was in no way blaming the current struggles on Polk or that coaching staff, even though some fans have criticized Polk’s recruiting efforts in his latter years.
He said that Polk was not among those who “should be embarrassed.”
“I assume full responsibility for the program,” Cohen said. “What I meant by saying that is everybody who’s a part of it. I would like to think anybody that steps on the field, when you lose by the amount of runs that we’ve lost by, should be embarrassed.”
One thing Cohen doesn’t suffer is excuses. But he can’t deny the effect injuries have had on the Bulldogs this season.
Weekend starter Nick Routt is out with an arm injury, and three key position players, including outfielder Brent Brownlee, are out for the season.
Polk is more than happy to make the excuse for Cohen.
“Now with the new NCAA rule on scholarship roster sizes, you have 27 guys on scholarship, you lose three or four good players, it makes it a little tough to go through the SEC,” Polk said.
An opinionated man
While Cohen won’t make excuses, he will never hold back on an opinion, and he’ll give it anywhere, any time.
During a loss to Auburn last season, Cohen was ejected and listened to the rest of the game on the radio. Afterwards, he said, “It’s a good thing we have the best radio guy in the country (Jim Ellis), because at the very least you get to listen to something of quality associated with Mississippi State baseball on the radio. Because there’s nothing of quality happening on the field there for a while.”
He’s also bemoaned the lack of talent on the pitching staff he inherited, an issue he addressed by bringing in a boatload of arms in the 2010 recruiting class, which was ranked eighth in the country by Baseball America.
Simply put, Cohen’s not big on coach-speak. He doesn’t skirt problem areas, instead choosing to let people know exactly how he feels about something and why.
“I’m not the president of the United States, but I’ve heard many presidents say that, that you have ceased to live a meaningful life if you don’t have regret,” Cohen said. “Of course I have regret. When you have to make as many decisions as lots of people do, anybody who’s in a management-type position is going to have regret.”
For whatever negative comments Cohen might make, he does not lose sight of the positives and a hope for a brighter future. When asked about a particular player’s struggles, as long as the effort and work ethic is there, that’s what Cohen will focus on.
That balance of praise and critical analysis, along with his sharp offensive mind and top-notch coaching staff, should aid Cohen in a rebuilding effort that he hopes will start paying dividends by next season.
Following Sunday’s game, veteran Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said of MSU, “They’re going to get their wins. Like I told the team, I’m glad we got in here and got some W’s and we get out of here before they get it going.”
Polk believes Cohen will get it going soon. The old coach stops by the baseball offices every Monday to check his mail, often stepping into Cohen’s quarters for a chat.
“I think coach, more than anybody else, knows exactly where we are,” said Cohen. “I think he has a good handle on what we’re trying to do, the kids we’re trying to recruit, what we’re trying to do with the kids that are in our program right now.”
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Tonight: Tennessee LHP Bryan Morgado (2-4, 5.07) vs. Mississippi State RHP Caleb Reed (0-3, 4.79)
– Saturday: Tennessee RHP Stephen McCray (4-3, 1.99) vs. Mississippi State RHP Chris Stratton (3-3, 3.43)
– Sunday: Tennessee LHP Steven Gruver (1-2, 5.51) vs. Mississippi State TBA