STARKVILLE – This season is not about winning for Mississippi State baseball. John Cohen might not come right out and say that, but the first-year coach will talk about the bigger picture, about what he thinks is possible in the long term. As bleak as it is now – the Bulldogs are in real danger of missing the SEC Tournament for the second straight year – Cohen thinks the future is inevitably bright.
That’s how strongly he believes in what he’s doing. He isn’t hoping, he’s expecting. Just a matter of time before the Bulldogs are on top again.
“I know exactly where we’re headed in the future,” he said Monday after returning from Nashville, where MSU lost three games to Vanderbilt. “I’ve been here before.”
Right now, “here” is rock bottom. Was it really just two years ago that State took fans on a thrill ride to the College World Series? I helped cover the Super Regional in Starkville that year, when MSU beat Clemson, and it was an electric event. Bulldog baseball was right where it belonged.
Now it’s in the tank – the septic tank. And Cohen’s task is to drag it out, scrub it down, shine it up, and make it presentable again in SEC circles.
The cleansing is well under way.
“Everything we’re doing is new for these kids,” Cohen said. “Showing up for practice and competing like something’s on the line every time is new. Mentally, I think some of them have really thrived in that environment, and I think some of them haven’t thrived in that environment.”
Cohen’s not one to mince words. He has said his bullpen can’t throw strikes, that the overall talent level isn’t near where it needs to be, that some players can’t figure out exactly what it is he wants.
Maybe that rubs some folks the wrong way, but you don’t clean up this sort of mess without a Brillo pad.
The big picture
So right now, winning is not priority No. 1. It’s going to be treated as No. 1 on game day, certainly, as it should. The grander focus, however, is on winning in the future, when the Bulldogs will theoretically have a chance of doing so.
“From the here and now it might be a situation where people don’t understand, but what I’m really doing right now is trying to create a huge year two years from now. I’m trying to take a nucleus of guys and trying to prepare them for that,” he said.
Let’s go back to Cohen’s days at Kentucky, which before his arrival there in 2004 had not finished .500 or better in SEC play since 1996. Kentucky was to baseball as Vanderbilt has been to football.
By Year 3, though, the Wildcats were SEC champions. A sign of an impending apocalypse, I thought at the time, but I guess God’s standard for world’s end indicators is a little higher than that.
“It’s a real challenge to coach in these type of situations,” Cohen said, “but it’s a privilege to be at Mississippi State, it’s a privilege to have this undertaking.”
An undertaking for sure, but Cohen isn’t so much undertaker as life-giver, restorer, and eventually, winner.
Brad Locke (firstname.lastname@example.org) covers Mississippi State for the Daily Journal and blogs daily at NEMS360.com.
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