By Parrish Alford and Brad Locke
John Cohen robbed Mike Bianco of a potential SEC championship 20 years ago. He’ll try to repeat that theft this weekend.
The Ole Miss-Mississippi State baseball rivalry begins a new chapter as the two former SEC players oppose one another as head coaches beginning Friday at the Rebels’ Swayze Field.
Cohen’s offensive outburst in mid-April in 1989 was pivotal as the Bulldogs won a key SEC series at LSU.
Cohen played under Ron Polk at State, but Friday will mark the first time in more than three decades that this rivalry will be played without Polk or one of his former assistant coaches leading the Bulldogs.
In his ninth season at Ole Miss, Bianco has consistently placed a program of modest modern-day tradition into the national picture.
Though his first MSU team is struggling, Cohen, in his sixth season as a head coach, has an SEC championship in his pocket. He led Kentucky to the overall regular season title in 2006.
That’s what Bianco’s No. 7-ranked Rebels are chasing right now in a three-way tie at the top with LSU and Florida and six games to play.
“Naturally, I’m biased, but Mike is one of the top coaches in the nation,” said former LSU coach Skip Bertman. “In the 20 years I coached against Mississippi, there were four or five different coaches. They didn’t have the success Mike has had.
“And John, for him to win the SEC for the first time in Kentucky’s history … That shows how good John is.”
Cohen burns Tigers
Cohen was very good at the plate, to Bertman’s displeasure, 20 years ago.
The home run that rocked the Tigers at old Alex Box Stadium and changed the course of the SEC race came against Bertman’s ace, Ben McDonald, a 6-foot-7 national player of the year and future top pick in the MLB draft.
Cohen struck McDonald with a solo shot to lead off the seventh in the first game of the now-defunct Saturday SEC doubleheader. The hit broke a 3-3 tie and was the game’s final run.
Cohen keeps a framed black and white photo of that at-bat in his office.
“I remember hitting it to left-center field, and I remember with Ben, you’re guessing,” Cohen said. “When a guy’s throwing 100 mph, you’re guessing.”
Cohen also scored the game’s final run in the nightcap, another 4-3 MSU win in a doubleheader sweep in Baton Rouge.
LSU salvaged the final game of the series, but the Bulldogs went on to win the SEC with a 20-5 mark. LSU was second at 18-9.
“John was a very tough player, a competitor,” said Bertman, who also coached against Cohen’s Northwestern State teams. “It was easy to tell early on that he would be an excellent coach. It was easy to tell that he had the gift.”
Cohen was 4-for-9 with a double, home run, three RBIs and three runs scored on the weekend.
Bianco went 4-for-13 with three RBIs, a double and three runs scored batting leadoff as the catcher.
“That was my senior year, and we were having a great year,” Bianco said. “We won on Sunday, but they swept us in the doubleheader. There were more games to play, but that was like the championship.”
Bianco had left an impression on Cohen by series end, too.
“Here’s this 6-7 guy (McDonald) pitching to this 5-8, 5-9 guy, and Mike ran the show,” he said.
Polk, who coached 31 years in two stints at Mississippi State before giving way to Cohen, has trouble recalling specifics of the series. But he remembers well what kind of players Cohen and Bianco were.
He actually recruited Bianco in high school.
“Both John and Mike have one quality that is interesting – they’re both intense. They’re both very competitive, and I think it’s gonna lead to interesting combats in the future,” said Polk, who’s a volunteer assistant at UAB.
We meet again
Their paths continued to cross as coaches. Both spent time at Northwestern (La.) State, Bianco as an assistant, Cohen as head coach.
They were rookie head coaches in 1998 when Bianco took over at McNeese State in Lake Charles, La., and Cohen was hired at Northwestern just up the road in Natchitoches.
Cohen had not yet been named coach when Bianco and Cohen’s predecessor – current Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn – were trying to fill out their schedules. Both schools were members of the Southland Conference, but Bianco and Van Horn agreed to meet twice in games that would not count in the SLC standings.
The end result was McNeese faced a future major league pitcher – Brian Lawrence spent six seasons in the big leagues – three times and lost five times to Northwestern in 1998.
“Little did I know when we agreed to the scheduling that they had a guy named Brian Lawrence. We had scheduled the defending champs and the pitcher of the year,” Bianco said. “We walked like 13 guys and got annihilated my first college game.”
McNeese swept Northwestern in 2000 en route to the school’s first SLC baseball title in 12 years. That was Bianco’s first NCAA tournament as a head coach. His teams have missed it just one time since.
“McNeese had some big, strong, athletic guys, and I felt they were going to be good as soon as they got some pitching, and they were,” Cohen recalled.
Bianco went from McNeese to Ole Miss in 2001. The next year, Cohen left his head post for an assistant’s job at Florida, where he stayed until taking over at Kentucky in 2004.
As head coaches, Cohen is 15-10 against Bianco with seven games decided by one run. They’ve met 11 times as SEC opponents with Cohen holding a 6-5 edge.
“He’s one of the best coaches in the SEC. People talk about John’s teams and their offense. Everywhere he’s been his clubs have done well offensively,” Bianco said.
That hasn’t changed this year. Cohen’s first MSU team has struggled on the mound, but the Bulldogs are hitting .308 in SEC games, third in the conference.
“I thought going in if everybody stayed healthy, the team could be competitive,” said Polk. “Unfortunately, with 11.7 scholarships, oftentimes in the SEC it boils down to who’s healthy, and the last two years Mississippi State’s been snakebit.”
SEC games have been closely contested, too. Due to conference scheduling, Ole Miss and Kentucky did not play in Cohen’s first two seasons with the Wildcats.
In his last three seasons in Lexington, Kentucky defeated Ole Miss in the regular season series each time. Last year the Rebels beat the Wildcats 7-5 on the final day of the regular season to clinch an SEC tournament berth, then beat them again in the tournament’s second round.
Ole Miss defeated MSU 8-1 earlier this season in the Governor’s Cup game in Pearl.
Bertman expects the series to be great baseball played before a packed house at newly expanded Swayze Field. He takes pride in the coaches who have received the baton to carry on a legacy.
“This weekend will be another great example of, going back 15-20 years, when Polk and myself and others sat around talking about how we could make baseball into a money-making sport so the ADs would pay attention to it,” he said.
“John and Mike are two more examples of the strength of Southeastern Conference baseball.”
From all accounts, it’s a friendly rivalry. Polk said he always got along well with Ole Miss coaches and hopes that continues with Cohen and Bianco. Cohen said he and Bianco talk regularly, either before games or at SEC coaches meetings.
“I certainly respect all the things he’s done at Ole Miss, and the things he did at McNeese,” Cohen said. “I don’t know for sure, I like to think he respects what I’ve done at Kentucky, Florida and Northwestern.
“So I definitely think there’s a mutual respect there.”
Parrish Alford and Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal