Birney Imes: The philosopher coach

January 30, 2010 11:32:00 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


John Cohen is equal parts baseball coach and philosopher. At least that''s the impression I got listening to him speak to the Starkville Rotary Club Monday.  


You have the sense Cohen, the coach of the Mississippi State Baseball Bulldogs, spends as much time and energy conditioning the minds of his players as he does their throwing arms. Last year the team GPA average was an impressive 3.14. 


Each day his staff e-mails the players a quote. One of his recent daily offerings noted how Thomas Edison tried 2,000 options before he found the needed element for his light bulb. A young reporter asked Edison how it felt when he was facing 2,000 failures. Edison replied: "I didn''t fail once. It just happened to be a 2,000-step process." 


The quote is analogous to Cohen''s quest for a championship program at State, a crusade he began two years ago when he returned to his alma mater after resurrecting the Kentucky baseball program and winning SEC coach of the year and College Baseball Foundation''s coach of the year. 


Cohen, a 1990 MSU English major, talked of his playing days with Coach Ron Polk and how before their freshman season each player received a 19-page letter from the coach. Polk, by the way, pitched a fit over MSU''s choice of Cohen, arguing instead for assistant coach Tommy Raffo to be his successor.  


"I read Coach Polk''s letter for the first time not long ago," Cohen laughed. "I don''t know if anyone ever read it, but it made our parents feel good." 


By contrast, Cohen''s charges get a two-paragraph letter and a wristband with the letters F.I.O. Figure It Out. Cohen is big on personal responsibility and he wants players who think for themselves. 


"We don''t do problems," he says.  


"Our 18- to 20-year-olds don''t have problems; they have challenges." 


The 43-year-old coach makes sure the young men he coaches remember how they got where they are. Each year he has his players write a letter of thanks to someone who helped them along the way. 


And there is no such thing as a "bad day" for a baseball Bulldog. "You know who cares if you''re having a bad day?" he tells his players. "Nobody. We don''t allow bad days." 


Monday Cohen told a story about a unhappy player who came to him when he was a hitting coach at Florida. The team was in the regional playoffs and the player complained of being eighth in the batting order.  


"Nobody likes hitting in the eighth hole," Cohen said. "These kids were all used to batting third and fourth on their high school teams. 


"Coach, don''t you have any confidence in me? I don''t know if I can bat eighth," the disgruntled player said. 


"Look," Cohen said to the unhappy player, "see those teams out there; every one of them has someone batting eighth. I want you to be the best eighth hitter out here. You do that, and I''ll tell you what I''ll do; I won''t tell (Florida Head) Coach McMahon we had this conversation." 


"Pride is our enemy," Cohen said. "There is no such thing as foolish responsibility. I''m big on responsibility." 


And don''t bother Cohen with your philosophy. He doesn''t want to hear it.  


"You have a doctor performing surgery on you, you don''t care about his philosophy," Cohen said. "You worry about how straight he can cut." 


"We''re interested in precision, not philosophy." 


And he''s interested in the skill acquired though disciplined, hard work. 


Cohen mentioned a theory Malcolm Gladwell advances in his latest book "Outliers," that it takes 10,000 hours to master a craft. 


"Your confidence level comes when you acquire a skill," said Cohen. 


Sign on the Bulldogs'' locker room wall: "Confidence comes from skill acquisition." 


And confidence is something Cohen seems to have plenty of. "A year from now we''re going to have the best pitching staff in America," he told the Rotarians. 


Cohen told the group he intends to restore the MSU baseball program to its winning ways.  


From the sounds of it, he''s well on his way to figuring out how to do just that.

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.