February 20, 2009
STARKVILLE -- John Cohen will probably feel a few goose bumps when the 119th Mississippi State baseball season begins today. Cohen won''t only be reacting to the chilly temperatures expected in Starkville.
Cohen, the school''s 16th baseball coach, will open his era at 5 p.m. today against Northern Illinois at the BankFirst Challenge at Dudy Noble Field.
After playing for the Bulldogs from 1987-90 for coach Ron Polk, the man he replaces, Cohen returns to MSU after stints as Missouri assistant coach (1992-97), Northwestern State head coach (1998-2001), Florida assistant coach (2002-03) and Kentucky head coach (2004-08).
Cohen, 42, is one of three Southeastern Conference baseball coaches coaching their alma maters, and he is the fifth MSU graduate to coach the Bulldogs.
With all of that to consider, Cohen said he hasn''t experienced the emotion that comes from a special homecoming. He is sure it will happen, but is not sure when.
"I''m sure when I walk out on that field and through the tunnel (today) there will be a little bit of an emotion because this is where I''ve always wanted to be and, in my opinion, it''s the Mecca of college baseball," Cohen said. "It''s a very special place to me. At that point and time, I''m sure something will happen for me, but it just hasn''t happened yet."
Cohen''s players have noticed a little pep in their coach''s step as the season opener approached.
Even though the Bulldogs acknowledge "it''s all about business" with Cohen, they see how special the situation is for him.
"You can tell he is enthused about being here," MSU junior infielder Connor Powers said. "He loves Starkville and Mississippi State. He''s expressed that to us many times."
The Bulldogs have caught Cohen looking around the stadium during practices and scrimmages.
MSU senior outfielder Grant Hogue knows there is something stirring deep down inside Cohen.
"I think it''s going to hit him once (gametime) comes and once that stadium fills up," Hogue said. "There is some excitement because of him and what he''s done so far. He tries not to talk too much about the past and what he did here because he was very successful, but it''s probably going to give him a chill or two."
Since his return to Starkville last June, Cohen has been with speaking engagements and putting the Bulldogs through falls workouts, offseason conditioning, and preseason preparation.
Since he has been back in the area, Cohen also has gotten used to the changes on the MSU campus and around town, particularly the establishment of multiple drive-in restaurants.
"It was always a great place to go to school, but it''s almost breath-taking when you walk on campus," Cohen said. "The attention to detail all of the way down to the buildings on campus have been redone. It''s just a beautiful campus and it''s changed so much.
"The city of Starkville has changed. When I drive down the street and I see two Sonics, that''s big. There were no Sonics maybe within 150 miles of here when I was in school. Some things have changed for the better, and I think Starkville has really progressed."
Starkville has had at least one Sonic for some time, but Cohen was trying to emphasize how the community is moving forward, including the area that means the most to him and the things he sees every day.
Dudy Noble Field, Polk-DeMent Stadium has added skyboxes since Cohen''s playing days. The indoor practice facility, the Palmeiro Center, also has been added to help MSU''s sports programs.
"What a great job that coach Polk and Larry Templeton (former MSU athletic director) did keeping up and adding to our baseball facility, which is one of the greatest in the country, and we have plans to do even more," Cohen said. "Greg Byrne (current MSU athletic director) has a lot of vision, and I think over the next two or three years we''re going to do some real special things with the facility."
Since Cohen''s return, a new practice infield was put in behind the Palmeiro Center and an expanded high definition video board, twice the size of the old one, has been installed.
Having played for Polk, Cohen has been careful to say the things Polk did were needed in his 29-year tenure with the Bulldogs.
But Cohen sill will implement his ideas.
"Coach Polk was like any other coach as he was very set in his ways," Cohen said. "In some ways, I''m set in my ways even though we do a lot of things differently on a daily basis. I think some changes needed to be made. We''ve made a lot of those changes and I think over the long haul we''re going to benefit from it."
Cohen connection to Polk runs a little deeper for players like Powers and junior pitcher Ricky Bowen, who played on MSU''s 2007 College World Series team.
Cohen played in a record-tying 71 games in 1990 and also went to the CWS.
"It''s kind of a unique situation where he''s like one of us, too," Bowen said. "He''s a member of the family -- the coach Polk and the old Bulldog family. It''s unique to have your coach in that same situation."
Bowen will be the Bulldogs'' opening day starting pitcher. After two up-and-down seasons, Bowen (8-8, 6.09 ERA for his career) said it is an honor to be the starter for Cohen''s first game.
"Ever since I got here as a freshman, you want to be the guy who gets the start opening day," Bowen said. "I''m privileged, and I''m looking to go out there and do the best I can."
Cohen said the Bulldogs rotation of six outfielders is a strength. Newcomers Luke Adkins, a transfer from Southern Miss, and freshman Brent Brownlee are expected to provide depth.
Cohen plans to use all of them.
"I know that sounds crazy from the beginning, but we want to know who can do what in game situations," Cohen said. "I want to play a lot of guys early."
Mississippi State will try to rebound from last season''s 22-33 (9-21 SEC) finish.
Cohen is not promising immediate success, but his goal is to make sure the Bulldogs improve each day.
"We''re coming off a very difficult season and it''s a transition for these guys," Cohen said. "The season will be a challenge, and there will be bumps in the road, but we want these kids hitting bumps in the road going full speed. I want us to get airborne hitting those bumps. We''re going to make mistakes, but they are going to be full-speed mistakes. We''re really going to get after the people we play against."