As he closes in on 12 months as Mississippi State’s athletic director, John Cohen sat down with the HailStateBEAT for a question-and-answer session reviewing his first year on the job, as well as looking ahead to the future. Topics covered include new facilities, women’s basketball’s run to the National Championship Game, lessons learned and future plans, among much else. The conversation took place in the Humphrey Coliseum overlooking practice for MSU’s men’s basketball team, and the following is a transcript of the interview between Cohen and HailStateBEAT reporter Bob Carskadon.
Bob Carskadon: Let’s start with the big picture of your first year. What is something you’ve learned in these first 12 months and what has been the biggest takeaway?
John Cohen: When you’re a head coach in the Southeastern Conference, you can elicit change quickly at times through practice, games and recruiting. As an athletic director, it’s more difficult to create rapid change. Initiating change and creating change is a longer process because of the scope and magnitude of the department.
It is comforting for me to know we have great coaches at Mississippi State. I believe our student-athletes are being led by outstanding coaches. I’m not sure I would trade our collective group of coaches we have for any group of coaches in the country.
BC: Certainly, there has been a lot going on in terms of competition and facilities the last year, but one thing I’ve noticed is that you’ve also taken an initiative to honor MSU’s athletic history. Joe Fortunato is being inducted into the Ring of Honor at Davis Wade Stadium, and you’ve mentioned before that the department has plans for plaques to honor Frank Dowsing and Robert Bell, the first African-American football players to enroll at Mississippi State. With plans in other sports, too, it seems that honoring the past and the former Bulldog greats is important to you.
JC: It is important for us to honor the rich heritage of Mississippi State. I want our student-athletes, both current and former, to realize the pioneering contributions of Frank Dowsing and Robert Bell. They’re not just Mississippi State heroes. They’re heroes. It’s important to honor their legacy. I wish Frank was still with us, but Robert will be with us when we install a permanent recognition at Davis Wade Stadium.
And of course, honoring Joe Fortunato is really important. Just a little research reminds you how impressive Joe Fortunato’s career was, someone who was a five-time Pro Bowler, who was an All-American at Mississippi State, and is arguably one of the greatest players in Mississippi State history and one of the Chicago Bears’ all-time greats.
BC: Already, there have been a great deal of exciting games and moments, but certainly, the run by Vic Schaefer and the women’s basketball team last season is the highlight of the year. What was that experience like for you as the athletic director?
JC: The best thing about our women’s basketball Final Four run isn’t what happened last spring. It was obvious to me four years ago that something like this was going to happen. Watching our women’s basketball program evolve, seeing the relentless spirit of their practices, and seeing a coach who demands excellence and formulates a disruptive style of defense, you could tell something was bubbling up.
I’ve always enjoyed practice. Preparation is everything. The performance in games is all about the players, but the preparation is about the coaches. Watching Vic Schaefer’s teams prepare over the last five years, you just felt that something special was going to happen.
BC: As a former long-time baseball coach, I’ve been curious how your past experience impacts your ability to work and develop relationships with all the head coaches under your guidance. Having been through it all yourself for so many years, I imagine you have a particularly strong understanding of coaches’ needs and personalities.
JC: I know this is cliché, but the best coaches are ultra-competitive. It is important to understand that they’re not just competitive on the court or the field. They’re competitive in everything they do. So if you’re just having a conversation with a high level coach, you’re not just having a normal conversation. Competitive coaches need to feel like they are productive all the time. I’m that way now. I was that way as a coach. We all kind of speak that similar language.
I’ve had the privilege of working for great administrators who clearly understand that high-level coaches are trying not just to win games, win in teachable moments with players and win in recruiting – they’re trying to win every little moment of every day. That’s how you know you have somebody who’s really special.
As an administrator, you have to know how to filter those situations. Scott Stricklin was as good at that as anyone I’ve been around.
BC: When you were the baseball coach here, I know you regularly had a hand in administrative decisions and worked often with Stricklin on ideas and processes to better the department. Now that you’re the guy in charge, who are some of the people you rely on as sounding boards for similar conversations?
JC: I think our administrative staff is exceptional. [Deputy A.D./CFO] Jared Benko is a young, innovative administrator who has already been at four different SEC institutions. He’s a guy who has been a great resource for me. [Deputy A.D./Development] Bo Hemphill is a bright, creative leader who really understands fundraising and Mississippi State, which are so important to us. [Executive Senior Associate A.D./SWA] Ann Carr as an SWA has been a tremendous help to me as well. I also believe [Senior Associate A.D./External Affairs] Leah Beasley is a rising star, and [Executive Senior Associate A.D./Bulldog Club] Mike Richey’s work in the Bulldog Club is exceptional. Our Compliance staff led by [Executive Senior Associate A.D./Compliance] Bracky Brett does an outstanding job.
BC: Perhaps the biggest chunk of the budget, facilities continue to be a priority at MSU, whether it’s new stadiums like Dudy Noble currently under construction or updates to already-existing facilities. Do you have a particular approach or big-picture philosophy there?
JC: [Senior Associate A.D./Event & Facilities Management] Jay Logan and [Associate A.D./Facility Planning & Construction] Bobby Tomlinson have been so helpful. They’re extremely knowledgeable. In 2017, building facilities and maintaining the facilities you have is very important. We’re going to continue on the path that started with Larry Templeton and continued with Greg Byrne and Scott Stricklin. We’re going to build outstanding facilities. We have to in order to be competitive.
At Mississippi State, we’re not going to have the biggest football stadium. We’re not going to have the biggest basketball arena. We want quality instead of quantity; that’s our goal.
BC: As we finish up, I’ll ask a big picture question. Imagine retiring years from now at the end of your career – what do you want your legacy as the Mississippi State Athletic Director to be?
JC: I want our legacy to be that we competed for championships. That we built and maintained timeless facilities. I want our student-athletes to say, “I had a great experience at Mississippi State and I want to come back and be a part of the Mississippi State family the rest of my life.” If those things happen, I’ll be very, very happy.
I also think it’s very important that we do it the right way. That’s another cliché. The “right way,” to me, is paying attention to detail, not only following the NCAA and SEC rules, but following the rules of integrity and decency. I believe our coaches do an excellent job of taking our student-athletes on a path of making great decisions both on and off the field.