June 19, 2014 8:57:13 AM
Jeffrey Cook arrived in Columbus hoping to build a family atmosphere that would help him establish a winning tradition with the school's baseball program.
Nearly eight years later, the Columbus High School baseball team is looking for a new patriarch.
On Tuesday, Cook resigned as baseball coach at Columbus High to take a position as assistant football coach on Michael Bradley's staff at South Pontotoc High. Cook, who taught physical science at Columbus High, will teach physical education at South Pontotoc Middle School.
Cook came to Columbus High in 2006 after spending two years away from coaching and working in another business opportunity. In eight seasons at Columbus High, Cook went 116-98 and helped the program make history. This past season, Columbus extended its school-record streak of consecutive playoff appearances to four en route to a 23-8 finish. Prior to that, he spent seven seasons as a coach at Ripley High (1998-2004). He said his goal when he came to Columbus to replace Kent Farris was to create a "family-oriented group" and a baseball program the community could be proud of. He leaves feeling he accomplished a lot of what he set out to do.
"My wife (Paige) and I have been praying. My family has been praying for a while for God to lead us in the right direction and tell us what we needed to do," said Cook, who was born in New Albany and went on to play baseball for Stacy Hester at Greenville Washington School. "Eight years is a long time. We have done a lot of great things. We just felt as a family this was the best move for us."
Cook also played football at Washington School. He played baseball for two years at Northeast Mississippi Community College in Booneville before eventually earning his degree at Mississippi State. He will work on the offensive side with the football team at South Pontotoc High. He said he plans to be a volunteer assistant baseball coach with Blue Mountain College, an NAIA school in Blue Mountain, in the spring. He also said he could work as a coach in the Cotton States Baseball League, a summer baseball league for college players that is based in New Albany.
"We're very pleased to be able to add Jeffrey Cook to our coaching staff," said Bradley, the former football coach at New Hope High. "He is a great coach. In my opinion, he should be the state baseball coach of the year for the season they had at Columbus High School. He took that program and that group of kids -- and I watched several of them start as freshmen get better all the way until their senior years. They had a great year, and I am real happy to see him be rewarded for the fruits of his labor. ... I was very surprised when he expressed interest in the job. We are very tickled to having him with us."
Cook also will coach the eighth-grade football team at South Pontotoc High. He said the move will enable him to be closer to his parents, who live in New Albany, and members of his wife's family who live in Ripley. He thanked all of the players, parents, administrators, and assistant coaches like Lee Boyd, Dallas Flippo, Zack Leach, and Tyler Stroupe who worked with the program to make it a success. This past season, Columbus beat Olive Branch and Clinton in the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class 6A North State playoffs before losing to Tupelo. Five members of the team -- Trace Lee, Chris McCullough, Hunter Mullis, Michael Sturdivant, and Greg Sykes -- have signed to play baseball in college next season. Catcher Gevonta Webb is deciding on a scholarship offer. The team also had a 3.0 grade-point average this past school year. Since 2007, 16 Columbus High baseball players have signed to play at the next level. As a former player, Cook said helping his players achieve that goal was one of the most satisfying parts of his job.
Cook thanked Columbus High Principal Jill Savely and athletic director Rusty Greene for their help and support in their time at the school. He said Savely and Greene "did all they could for our kids" in the baseball program.
Andy Tentoni, whose son, Josh, was a catcher with the Columbus High baseball team, said Cook is a "good man" who "never compromised, bent a rule, or did anything outside of the lines or the rules" in his time as coach at Columbus High. He said Cook is a "good family man" that he hates to see leave Columbus.
"The program he built there he did on less than a shoestring," Tentoni said. "There are too many times I am aware of that there was equipment he needed that he didn't have. Baseball has been the winningest program at Columbus High since there has been a Columbus High. ... I like Jeffrey. He is a friend of mine. I am sad the district is losing a good man and a very good baseball coach."
Greg Dees, who worked as a volunteer assistant coach and as an assistant coach for Cook from 2011-13, echoed those thoughts. Dees, who completed his first season as head baseball coach at Raymond High earlier this year, said he wouldn't be in the position he is in now if it wasn't for Cook giving him the opportunity to gain experience. He said Cook was the same way with his players and gave them room to grow and provided the instruction to help them improve.
"The thing I admired about him was he let me coach," said Dees, who played baseball at Mississippi Valley State. "It really was a pleasure to be there. I really wish it didn't end like it did, but sometimes you have to do what is best for yourself."
Dees said Cook was "starving for help" when he arrived in 2011 and that he had to do a lot of things head coaches don't ordinarily do. He said the coaches all worked hard in the next two years to offer individual instruction so the younger players could have plenty of opportunities to get better. He said that work ultimately paid off this year in the program's most successful season.
"We accomplished some really great things while we were there together," Dees said. "In my first year, we started five freshmen that by the time they were seniors we knew were going to be a special group and that we were going to have five or six college baseball players. You look up this year and there are five or six signing. ... He set the foundation for what he wanted and let me do my work. That is how we really flourished."
Tentoni agreed and said former Columbus High assistant coaches Eric Ebers, who is an assistant coach at Tennessee-Martin, and Mark Hysaw, who is an assistant coach at Caledonia High, played valuable roles with Cook in establishing the fundamentals, respect, and the teamwork he felt were core ingredients to the program. He said Cook and all of his coaches throughout the years have helped keep the players grounded and working hard. He isn't sure how Cook's decision to leave following several votes by the Columbus Municipal School District board not to approve a hitting facility for the Columbus High baseball and softball programs.
"God bless the next guy who comes in because it is going to be an uphill battle," Tentoni said.
Jim Mullis and Bobby McCullough have been outspoken in their support of a hitting facility for the school's teams. Mullis, whose son, Hunter, will play baseball at Meridian Community College in the fall, feels Cook's decision to resign was influenced by the recent decisions by the CMSD board. He said he no coach he has experienced in Mississippi or Georgia worked harder to promote his players to college coaches than Cook.
"If a kid really wants to play ball at the next level, he will work his tail off to give him that opportunity," Mullis said. "You can't ask anymore from a coach because he gives to his players to help them continue their education and development in baseball. He was a very good Christian leader. It is definitely going to be hard to replace him. I know the next two years are going to be tough in the program with him gone because we have not had a lot of support from the school board. I think that frustrated him and frustrated some of the parents."
Mullis said Cook's personality and willingness to support his players, or "have their backs," helped him develop that family-oriented group that he mentioned when he first arrived. Mullis said Cook's example helped rally parents to support the program and provide the players with a bigger support system when they lacked for equipment or for food on road trips. Not only does Mullis worry about how future Columbus High baseball players will be promoted, but he also isn't sure if a successful coach would want to be the next baseball coach at Columbus High given its facilities and the support it gets from the CMSD board.
"Hopefully that will change, but I don't have a lot of hope of that changing anytime soon from what I have seen," Mullis said. "They went out and got a big-time football coach (Randal Montgomery) and need to do the other things for the other athletic programs and give them the tools to continue development and continue to give the players chances to go to school. I would put up our graduating class (against any of the classes from the other sports). I would put that percentage rate of seniors who signed to play baseball (against any other sport at the school). That is a statement coach Cook made. He really had to work hard to promote some of these players."
McCullough said Cook should be praised for helping 16 players realize their goals and earn an opportunity to play baseball in college. He wondered how much more the players and the teams Cook guided could have accomplished if they would have had a hitting facility and similar resources of other Class 6A schools. He agreed with Tentoni that the next coach will have "a big challenge," especially if the CMSD board isn't going to support the baseball program.
"(The school board voting not to fund a hitting facility) is enough to push anyone out the door who has a passion for coaching," said McCullough, whose son, Chris, will play baseball at East Mississippi C.C. in Scooba. "When you know you can't compete with these other schools that are doing everything they can to bring up their level of play and to give the kids the best opportunity, it is hard to compete when the other people have a step ahead of you. When you see the school board not even looking like they are participating in making things better in the athletic program, that is enough to push any coach away.
"He went out on a limb and started five freshmen and really worked with those kids throughout the years. A lot of coaches tend to play seniors and seniors and juniors only. When he showed he was going to put the best on the field, that demonstrated he was going to go with the best and with the talent that is there to bring the program to a higher standard. I think for what he had to work with, I think he did the best he could do."
Cook said he loved his time in Columbus despite some "rocky" times with certain issues. He said he "hates" he didn't get everything accomplished he set out to do with the facilities because he said the kids deserve it. He said he hopes his presence didn't prevent Columbus High from getting a hitting facility and that the players who remain will get that opportunity after he leaves.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.