June 12, 2013 10:43:36 AM
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- After 22 years of coaching college baseball, Mississippi State University coach John Cohn spells w-i-n a different way: F-U-N.
In past years, the word "grind" has been a key ingredient to the former All-Southeastern Conference player's approach on the field. Cohen, who played at MSU from 1988-90, always has taken a blue-collar mentality that has led some to believe his attitude caused his talented teams to play tight because they didn't want to experience a tirade by Cohen.
This season, the 2013 MSU Bulldogs (48-18) have shown Cohen the importance of building team chemistry and enjoying their time at the ballpark and how that enables the team to play for its coach, not to spite him. MSU will get its next chance to play for Cohen and the rest of the coaching staff at 2 p.m. Saturday against No. 3 national seed Oregon State University (50-11).
"I think coach Cohen does get a bad rap because all people see on game days in this guy yelling at umpires and screaming at players," said Jarrod Parks, a former All-SEC player at MSU, in 2011. "My respect for coach Cohen began from day one because he played (at MSU) and was an All-SEC player. Practices were hard. But if you put in the work, he respected you, too. I knew if I had a problem I could go to him because he dealt with the same thing right here at Mississippi State."
The 2013 team, which advanced Monday to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., for the first time under Cohen, played free of pressure and worry in the title game of the NCAA Starkville Regional and in a sweep of No. 6 national seed University of Virginia in the NCAA Charlottesville Super Regional.
"It's a kid's game," MSU sophomore closer Jonathan Holder said. "If you can't have fun playing this game, something is wrong with you. We get paid part of our school here at Mississippi State to compete and play a kid's game. Why wouldn't you try to have fun and create memories?"
A preseason meeting between Cohen and sophomore pitcher Trevor Fitts that occurred by chance showed the Bulldogs' fifth-year coach he was doing something wrong. Fitts came to Cohen's office behind Dudy Noble Field and was chosen to represent his 34 teammates to discuss a critical issue.
"I've told this story many times, but Trevor Fitts comes to me and says. 'Coach, I need five minutes of your time,and I come representing the whole team', and I said, 'Trevor can we do this tomorrow?" Cohen said after the Charlottesville Super Regional victory. "The next morning Trevor is delivering a power point presentation on why I should, for the first time in 22 years of coaching, allow facial hair for my players."
That's when Cohen knew he had to lessen the grip on his team and adapt to coaching in a new era.
"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."
It's unknown what was included in Fitts' 10-minute presentation, but it worked. MSU had "Mustache March," where all the players attempted to grow a mustache for that month. Some of the team's more prominent players even have gone with playoff beards in the team's postseason run.
"We got guys with hair down to their butt and they look funny, but that doesn't mean they can't play," junior shortstop Adam Frazier said. "Our closer Jonathan Holder has hair coming out from everywhere under his hat, but that doesn't mean he can't throw a 93-mph fastball with a 12-6 hook. He was shaved bald last year, and this year he feels free on the mound to express himself."
The players' ability to have facial hair and to let their hair grow has given them a way to show their personalities. In response to Cohen allowing his players to be "more individuals and less robotic", the Bulldogs have been willing to put in the work the coaching staff requires.
MSU offered a glimpse of that loose atmosphere Monday as they prepared to resume their suspended game against Virginia. Ninety minutes before the start of the game, MSU pitchers Kendall Graveman, Ben Bracewell, Luis Pollorena, and Fitts were outside the dugout with a football running the triple option offense. Earlier in the pregame, Graveman was caught using a sledge hammer to try to putt a baseball.
Those moments have been frequent this season in the MSU clubhouse. As a result, the Bulldogs have bonded to overcome the toughest schedule in the SEC and to earn the program's first trip to the College World Series since 2007.
"We got to school in August and the guys just meshed well," MSU sophomore first baseman Wes Rea said. "It felt like we have something special in the locker room and we'd never really had with a ball club. We knew going to Omaha was our goal, and if you don't talk about your goals then you're never going to reach them."
During the off day of the Southeastern Conference tournament in Hoover, Ala., Cohen left his team to attend his daughter's high school graduation at Starkville High School. The players were given a day off and sophomore left-hander Ross Mitchell signed up for a open ping pong tournament at the Galleria Mall. The Bulldogs then cheered on Mitchell, who at the time owned the nation's best ERA and a 11-0 record, as he competed in the tournament in a camouflage tank top.
"I have no doubt Ross Mitchell would do something like that based on his personality and the way he is on the field," Cohen said. "I'll also remind you, though, Ross will lead our team in the pregame prayer service, too, so he knows when to be serious."
Most of the players have taken to Twitter and Vine videos on Twitter to showcase their personalities. Rea even posted on Twitter that fans "should book their hotel rooms for June 13-26 in Omaha" in the fall. The message showed his confidence about the talent and chemistry in the MSU locker room.
Cohen reminded everyone Monday after his team's 6-5 victory against Virginia that the Bulldogs work just as hard as they like to have fun. Cohen's change in attitude also may have played a role in the program's biggest increase in its multi-year Academic Progress Rate. MSU's APR jumped nine points to 962, and none of the Bulldogs have been in trouble with the law or have had academic problems this season.
"I know a lot of comments were made about our big bear (Rea) over at first base and whatever, (but) don't think for one moment this group didn't and doesn't continue to put the work in in the weight room, practice field, and in the classroom," Cohen said. "I'm proud of these kids every day, but guess what? We didn't mold them. That was already done when they come from excellent families and incredible parents. That's what I mean when I say we have the right kind of kids."