June 26, 2013 11:01:56 AM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
OMAHA, Neb. -- Five years ago, John Cohen had a frank discussion with Greg Byrne, who was Mississippi State University's Director of Athleticsat the time.
"I remembered saying to him in our first conversation about the job, 'Greg, this is not going to be fun early on because I have to break this thing down and then build it back up,' " Cohen said earlier this week. "I made it very clear that if you wanted to try a quick fix then we can part ways and there's no hard feelings."
Byrne wasn't interested in a quick fix and trusted that Cohen's plan, which included rebuilding the program through recruiting and playing to the strengths of the size of Dudy Noble Field, would help the MSU baseball team earn a chance to play for a national title.
"Even though we had been to Omaha in 2007, we weren't where we wanted to be at Mississippi State," Byrne said. "We all want quick fixes in this world and they don't exist. Every young coach thinks with his or her Xs and Os, it'll turn around. Now Xs and Os and preparation matter, but John realized a total program is not an overnight thing."
Cohen left his job as head baseball coach at the University of Kentucky to return to his alma mater and take over the baseball program. In several conversations with Byrne, Cohen described his plan for restoring a college baseball powerhouse that had fallen on hard times.
"I got hired about two months before John at Kentucky, so I got to watch the process of him rebuilding that program into a Southeastern Conference champion," MSU Director of Athletics Stricklin said. "I watched John stand at a news conference and say we are going to win a national championship, and I believed him. For whatever reason, it was like it was the most natural thing in the world to accept as a reality."
After a two-hour walk around Lexington one late May evening in 2008, it wasn't a given Cohen would be the next coach at MSU or if he would instead accept a pay raise and stay at Kentucky.
"I told (former MSU Director of Athletics) Greg (Byrne) I have a real affection for this university and Starkville, Mississippi, because it represents a lot of things I'm about," Cohen said. "This university is about blue collar, work your tail off, and it's not about status. It's about what you've done. It's about the character of who you are."
UCLA put that character to the test Monday and Tuesday. The Bruins' 8-0 victory in game two of the College World Series Finals helped them win their first national title in baseball. For MSU, which also was looking for its first national championship in the sport in its first trip to the finals, the losses ended a 51-20 season. Cohen insisted after the game this would not be the end of the road for his program. When a reporter asked Cohen about saying in his introductory press conference in Starkville that MSU would get to the national championship, Cohen corrected him.
"I said at our press conference we're going to win a national championship, which my wife flinched on several times," Cohen said. "She doesn't like it when I talk about that, but that's why we do this, to win the whole thing."
Cohen accepted the criticism for taking the job at MSU over the objection of former coach Ron Polk, who had strongly advocated the position go to one of his assistants, Tommy Raffo.
True to his word, Bulldogs went 48-62 in his first two seasons and failed to reach the SEC tournament. It was natural for fans to express their unhappiness with the program's new coach.
After winning 38, 40, and 51 games in the past three seasons, Cohen has re-established MSU's place as one of the nation's top programs. In the postgame press conference, Cohen sat with senior pitcher Kendall Graveman and juniors Hunter Renfroe and Adam Frazier, three players who were part of the ups and downs of the rebuilding process.
"I'm really proud of our players because they worked incredibly hard to get here," Cohen said. "Many of these guys came to Mississippi State under pretty adverse conditions in a program that was not in great condition. Five years ago, we inherited a club that won 23 ballgames. They climbed all the way to the top and we didn't finish the deal, and that's disappointing."
While UCLA (49-17) celebrated, MSU's players and coaches sat in the first-base dugout and watched every minute of the party on the field. Cohen and the MSU coaches wanted to know what it felt like to be so close to the ultimate goal.
"It's something I will never forget," Graveman said. "There will be new faces next year, but I have complete trust in coach Cohen getting them where they need to be again, and just like UCLA was here a couple of years ago, I got a feeling this team will be back."
So when fall practice begins in a few months, Cohen will be able to show his returning players the steps they need to take to win two more games to realize their goal.
"This senior class came within a eyelash of winning a national championship at Mississippi State," Cohen said. "This 2013 group could all see us doing this, and that's half the battle."
On Thursday at Dudy Noble Field, when the school and its fans will celebrate the baseball team's season, Cohen also will be able to understand why fans believe Byrne made the right call about his vision for the program.
"I almost feel like our kids put so much pressure on themselves because the amount of people that came to support them in the championship series was a wow factor for them," Cohen said. "It's so humbling in this economy for the people of our state to give up their vacations, giving up paychecks to support this team."