June 11, 2013 9:45:34 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- John Cohen knew this day would come in his coaching career.
The chance to experience a day like Monday on the campus of the University of Virginia is the reason Cohen returned to his alma mater to become baseball coach at Mississippi State University. To Cohen, it was a matter of when, not if the Bulldogs would return to the College World Series. MSU realized Cohen's vision with a 6-5 victory against No. 6 national seed University of Virginia at Davenport Field to complete a sweep of the best-of-three NCAA Charlottesville Super Regional.
The victory culminated a journey that was longer mentally and physically than the 812 miles that separate MSU from Omaha, Neb., the site of the college baseball's showcase event. Later this week, Cohen, who made the College World Series as a MSU player in 1990, will bring his first team to the event as a coach.
"I thought we'd get here because it's Mississippi State," Cohen said Monday. "I really believe in our staff. The most important thing you do as a staff is get the right people in our program. These are the right kids. We have phenomenal kids."
Cohen, who played for MSU from 1987-90, took over the program five years ago from legendary coach Ron Polk, and promised to get MSU back to the biggest stage. The Bulldogs failed to qualify for the postseason and went 48-62 in Cohen's first two years in Starkville as he tried to rebuild the program's talent pool. Four players on the 2013 roster -- Kendall Graveman, Chad Girodo, Sam Frost, and Ben Bracewell -- were on the 2010 team. Four years later, they'll experience what they were recruited do: get the Bulldogs to the College World Series.
Five years after putting together several nationally ranked recruiting classes and making it to the postseason three years in a row, MSU is back in the College World Series for the first time in six years.
"My wife Nelle always tells me, 'John, stop talking about winning a national championship at Mississippi State,' and I tell you, 'Nelle, we're in the Southeastern Conference, (so) 13 other coaches begin the season with that idea as the goal, so we have to as well,' " Cohen said. "Years ago, I left a group at the University of Florida that would eventually get to Omaha after I left. Selfishly, that was tough."
Cohen didn't need the extra encouragement, but Nelle Cohen told her husband he had to leave his job at head baseball coach at the University of Kentucky to go to MSU. It's a job John Cohen said is the last position he'll want.
"He said to me, 'I don't think I'm going because you love Lexington and I've moved you and the kids enough,' " Nelle Cohen said in 2012. "It must have been 5 in the morning when I leaned over and said, 'John, you have to take this job', and he said, 'Thank you.' He was waiting for me to say it was OK for all of us, and now I love it here in Starkville."
After two years of boosting Florida's offense as an assistant coach for Pat McMahon on the way to a SEC title, he took over a last-place program at Kentucky and went on to post a pair of school-record 44-win seasons on the way to a 175-113-1 mark in five seasons (321-197-1 in nine seasons). MSU Director of Athletics Scott Stricklin, who was an associate athletics director at Kentucky at the time, watched Cohen's rebuilding project.
"I got hired about two months before John at Kentucky, so I got to watch the process of him rebuilding that program into an SEC champion," Stricklin said in 2012, "so even though some athletics directors might have been a little impatient after the first two seasons (at MSU), I trusted what I saw at a previous place. He didn't have to convince me the plan works. I'd seen it work."
Virginia, which had never played MSU before this weekend, had nothing but positive things to say about Cohen's Bulldogs. Cavaliers coach Brian O'Connor watched a third team in the last 10 years celebrate a Super Regional title on his field.
"They were the better team in every aspect this weekend," O'Connor said. "Part of the reason we were at our worst is because of Mississippi State. If they take that (offensive) approach to Omaha, with that bullpen, they'll be very successful."
MSU has never played in the College World Series championship series. The only time the Bulldogs won more than one game at the event was 1985, when they defeated Oklahoma State University (12-3) and the University of Arkansas (5-4) before losing to the University of Texas (12-7) and the University of Miami (6-5). It is the only time MSU has won multiple games at the College World Series. The 1990 MSU team, which Cohen was a starting outfielder on, went 1-2. It lost to the University of Georgia (3-0), beat Georgia Southern University (15-1), and lost to Stanford University (6-1).
"I think the thing I'm most proud of with our guys is they all wanted to be in Omaha, but their goal is to try and win the whole thing," Cohen said. "They don't see this as a job being finished. We're excited, but I think these kids still think we have some journey left to go."