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South Carolina's Ray Tanner admires MSU's program build under John Cohen




Matt Stevens


OMAHA, Neb. - At 4 a.m., one of the college baseball's greatest coaches just couldn't contain his excitement any longer.  


Former University of South Carolina baseball coach and current Athletics Director Ray Tanner sent Mississippi State University coach John Cohen a text at that hour congratulating him and wanting to talk baseball with one of the two men in the 2013 College World Series final. 


"I texted John Cohen at 4 a.m., because I'm so excited about this series I can't sleep," Tanner said. "And I'm not playing or coaching."  


Five years ago, Cohen, who had won a Southeastern Conference championship at the University of Kentucky, knew he had to rebuild the MSU program in the image of something sustainable in one of the best leagues in America. What better program to mold yourself after than a program that was a consistent winner on its way to winning back to back national championships and on its way to three straight national championship series. 


"We exchanged dialogue like all baseball coaches do and we've had some really good conversations because I really think our careers have been really parallel," Tanner said.  


Cohen joked during the pre-tournament press conference at Humphrey Coliseum that he has "wore Ray Tanner's phone out over the years" 


"What I can't have more respect for on what Ray's team did over those years of success in Omaha was they valued pitching with Roth and then the bullpen and they showed up at the park with an unbelievable confidence," Cohen said. "That type of confidence is built over time and just doesn't naturally happen." 


Under Tanner, the Gamecocks made 14 NCAA Tournament appearances, advanced to the Super Regionals ten times, and have posted fourteen 40-win and five 50-win seasons. South Carolina won the 2000, 2002 and 2011 SEC regular season championships and the 2004 SEC Tournament championship. The Gamecocks have also claimed six Southeastern Conference Eastern Division titles (1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2011, 2012) and was named SEC coach of the year in 1998, 2000, and 2011. 


When Cohen entered the league as an assistant coach at University of Florida in 2002, Tanner began to take things from the younger generation of coaches coming up in the league.  


"Hey look, Cohen may have said he's a thief on things from me but I'll tell you that it's a two-way street," Tanner said. "I had to make some changes in my 25 years to my perspective. I've made some changes as well because if you don't change the ways in how you run your program, you're not going to get better." 


Tanner says has followed the MSU club all season and noticed Cohen's highly publicized change on facial hair and said he'd done the same thing before South Carolina's famous run in Omaha.  


"That's okay to resisit change if you're at the top but you begin to realize very quickly that nobody can stay at the top thinking that way your whole career," Tanner said. "We overdo it as a coach and I've been so guilty of over coaching and the affect was not getting the right thing out of the players. I had the no facial hair rule and their socks had to show. It was more military than it was a baseball program. It was wrong." 


In his 16 seasons, through 2012, Tanner has posted a 738-316 overall record with six College World Series appearances but the former Gamecocks coach remembers fondly the first CWS he lost. South Carolina's first trip to the CWS finals was in 2002 and they lost 12-6 to the University of Texas.  


"I believe that your team will take on your personality and I'm sure that true but I also know that as a inexperienced coach in 2002, I did a real poor job coaching this team," Tanner said. "In that one game, I didn't give my team a chance to win and they may have beaten us anyway but I didn't do a proper job either." 


Tanner has the unique perspective of winning a national championship at the old Rosenblatt Stadium and then a national title in the first year of TD Ameritrade Park. Tanner recognized, like Cohen did when he arrived at MSU, that the game had changed and was going to have to start recruiting more athletes and less power.  


"I had no choice and nobody else did too," Tanner sad. "Nobody loved the three-run home run more than myself and Earl Weaver and then the game changed without a warning. I love the way John's team executes pitching and defense. He and (MSU pitching coach) Butch Thompson can match up all throughout the game." 


Before the 2013 season, Cohen was defined by what he still calls "the grind" and taking that blue collar mentality to the baseball diamond and the criticism was his attitude would cause his talented teams to play tight because they didn't want to hear an irate tirade by Cohen. 


"I kept watching this presentation thinking 'Is having my players clean shaven all the time for me or for our players?'," Cohen said. "Meaning if we're going to make them work their tails off....and I started thinking about allowing my guys to have fun and have a good time on the bench. I suddenly realized that's important too." 


In this 2013 CWS finals, MSU's club under Cohen battles the University of California at Los Angeles - the school that Tanner beat in a 2-0 sweep in 2010.  


"I know you can get swallowed up in Los Angeles with collegiate baseball but we all know in the coaching community how successful they've been because UCLA takes pitching and defense to a whole another level," Tanner said. "I love to still follow the game and I thought about this this morning but it's a great matchup." 




All of the Dispatch MSU Sports Blog readers: feel free to follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/matthewcstevens for up-to-date Mississippi State coverage.



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