It’s Cohen’s Weekend In StarkvilleColumns
No matter what he might’ve had planned for this weekend a few weeks ago, there’s zero doubt where you’ll find former Mississippi State head coach turned athletic director John Cohen this weekend.
He’ll make the stroll to Dudy Noble Field in his new work attire – a sport coat, maroon preferably – and take a seat with the normal fans with a little more intrigue than usual. Sure, he’ll be there to root on first-year head coach Andy Cannizaro – his first hire as an athletic director, but he’ll also be in attendance to check up on new Kentucky head coach Nick Mingione. Mingione is a dear friend of Cohen’s and spent two coaching stops with him, once at UK and of course, the last eight seasons at Mississippi State.
In a league such as the Southeastern Conference, getting your foundation set and experiencing immediate success is close to impossible. Tennessee’s Dave Serrano and Georgia’s Scott Stricklin were outstanding head coaches at previous stops at UC Irvine and Kent State, respectively, and I’d argue that neither have forgotten how to coach. But, boy, the SEC is tough.
But for Mingione and Cannizaro, two guys with zero head coaching experience before getting jobs with the Wildcats and Bulldogs, respectively? It would be foolish to call anything in this league easy, but both have experienced immediate and somewhat unexpected success.
Cohen isn’t surprised.
“Well, I think the thing with Nick, he has a ton of energy. You know me, when Nick was around here, I really needed that kind of high energy personality around me,” Cohen said. “In that respect, I think he and Andy are really, really similar. They are similar in that they just have a special and positive vibe about them that just seems to pour out.”
Cohen might not be personally surprised with Mingione and Cannizaro thus far, but the rest of the nation has been taken by storm. Kentucky entered the season as a team to watch outside the D1Baseball Top 25, but few expected a start like this. Yes, the Wildcats dropped a tough and hard-fought series to North Carolina to start the season, but they’ve been close to flawless since, getting healthier by the day and winning SEC series against Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt before this weekend’s bout with the Bulldogs. UK is 21-9, has an RPI of 13 and would earn a regional host if the season ended today.
Mississippi State has overcome some serious challenges. It has had enough injuries, specifically on the mound, to fill up a hospital waiting room. MSU does possess one of the better starting pitchers in the SEC in Konnor Pilkington, but the rest of the pitching staff, at least for now, is patch work with Spencer Price, Riley Self and others leading the bullpen and Jake Mangum moving into the starting rotation along with his usual role as a hitter. MSU has just found ways to get it done with impressive slugger Brent Rooker and others leading at the plate. Now, the Bulldogs, too, are in the hosting discussion with an RPI of 21, a 20-11 overall record and already a whopping 11 wins against RPI Top 100 teams.
“I think Andy has had to deal with some extremely tough circumstances here,” Cohen said. “He has stayed positive and has found ways to weather the storm. It’s been a lot of fun to watch Andy’s development.”
And Cohen will get to watch Mingione’s development this weekend, too.
Cohen knew there was something special about Mingione the first time he met him. As Cohen was looking to hire an assistant at Kentucky, he looked to the young assistant at Embry-Riddle. After all, he needed someone who could head to the Bluegrass State and sell a program that hadn’t been to the NCAA postseason since 1993 and had only been to the NCAA postseason once before in 1988.
Not easy, right? Well, Mingione made an instant impact on the recruiting trail and the Wildcats began to attract better players. He only spent two seasons with UK, but his impact was noted and a big part of the program’s upward trajectory.
“I had a really good conversation with Mitch Barnhart (Kentucky’s athletic director) about Nick when they were trying to hire a head coach,” Cohen said. “I told him Mitch that Nick is going to be successful whatever he does in life. He could go sell encyclopedias in Times Square tomorrow, and I’d bet he’d sell a lot of them.
“I feel the same way about Andy here,” he continued. “And I feel the same way about Butch Thompson (at Auburn) and Lane Burroughs (at Louisiana Tech). I’ve just been really fortunate to be around some great coaches who are now, in my opinion, really good head coaches.”
Cohen wasn’t surprised when the Wildcats came calling for Mingione. While it was known the Wildcats had a couple of potential big fish nibbling at the line, neither candidate materialized and Barnhart was smart to look at the best possible remaining fit. Mingione was on the coaching staff at UK during two of the program’s most important years, so he knew what was needed to make the program a winner.
“I’m still connected enough to the baseball world to know that a lot of people were probably scratching their heads when Kentucky hired Nick, but I know deep down what it takes to win at UK. It’s a different challenge, and with that, every coaching job in the SEC has their own unique set of challenges.
“It takes a very specific personality to win at UK, and I felt he was truly the perfect match for that job,” he continued. “I think the challenge with Nick, and I credit Mitch for this, is that everyone remembers Nick at UK when he was 27 or whatever. Everyone has matured since they were 27. I know I have. He’s just matured so much. He was ready for that job, and I still say that Nick would be successful doing anything in life.”
Watching Cannizaro and the Mississippi State program from the stands, and not in the dugout, has been a surprisingly refreshing experience for Cohen.
During his time as the head man for the Bulldogs, it’s no secret that Cohen was considered someone with a hard-nosed personality. If you knew Cohen on a personal level, it was a vastly different experience. But on the field? He wanted to beat your team, and you’d rarely catch him smiling on the field. There’s no good or bad in that, but that was Cohen and that chip on the shoulder approach permeated throughout the team and often led to good results.
These days, you see pictures all over the place of Cohen shaking hands with alumni, student-athletes and other dignitaries. He’s all smiles now and admits that he’s having more fun than ever as the head of MSU’s athletic department, which celebrated a trip to the Women’s Final Four last week.
“You know, there’s a ton of responsibility in what I’m doing right now. I had so many long discussions with Ray Tanner about this job and there were just so many parallels to college baseball,” he said. “There are similarities to being an AD and a baseball coach in this league. Baseball is such a grassroots sport in a lot of ways and the same goes for women’s hoops and some other sports out there. People aren’t just going to wake up one day and show up to games. You really must connect with the fan base. You must go out there and get them to games.
“You have to serve fans, alumni, the student body, coaches and student athletes. It’s a lot of fun,” he continued. “I have to tell you, I still feel competitive when our teams are on the field, but I like myself as this kind of competitor. I didn’t like myself much as a competitor on the baseball field sometimes. In some ways, I thought it made me into something I wasn’t. I like this guy I am now a little more.”
As the athletic director, Cohen is tasked with keeping tabs on the baseball program and evaluating Cannizaro’s job. It has been so far, so good from his standpoint, especially considering the number of injuries the Bulldogs have dealt with this spring.
“I don’t know if anyone in the country has dealt with some of the issues that Andy and his staff have from an injury standpoint,” he said. “I think they’re in good shape, but they’d be in terrific position if they just had one or two of those guys available who are now out for the season with an injury.
“With that said, I have so much faith in Andy and his staff,” he continued. “I think him and Gary [Henderson] have a great marriage on the staff. Andy brings the enthusiasm and more of the player’s perspective, while Gary has been through absolutely everything and can provide such valuable insights. Things might not have gone well at the beginning of the season, but Andy is a grinder and a tireless worker. And he keeps pushing the kids.”
It’ll be a weekend to remember for Cohen, as he takes his seat in the grandstand.