John Cohen has always been a little bit unique among baseball coaches. Now, certainly, his desire to win, his constant tracking of numbers and his background as a former player himself are standard for those in the profession. But Cohen has always had something else. Or more specifically, he’s been interested in something else.
To say that Cohen’s heart is big enough for more than one passion would be cheesy in the metaphoric sense and a serious medical condition when taken literally. His mind, however, that mine of baseball knowledge, has always sought knowledge and experience beyond just what he knows or works with already.
Just look at his time in college at Mississippi State when he was going to the World Series in the summer and taking classes for his English literature degree in the fall and spring. Conversations in his office are just as likely to reach the economy, linguistics, MSU’s football team or scientific discovery. Of course, the subjects of bat speed, marketing tactics, recruiting philosophies or pitching deliveries could easily come up, as well.
It was Cohen’s interest in all things, not just one thing, that helped lead to him being named MSU’s 17th Director of Athletics on Friday.
“I love writing things down. I love researching. I love listening to folks talk about things that really matter,” he shared near the end of his press conference.
For the last eight years at MSU, and for the last 20 at other stops along the way, Cohen has been doing that, finding a way to be involved with all things in the athletic departments and universities who have employed him. Baseball was, of course, his focus and passion, but his interests could never be narrowed to just one subject.
Over time, Cohen has become more and more of an active participator in the administrative side of college athletics, particularly at his alma mater. As far back as 2008, he was involved in the search and hiring process for current MSU football coach Dan Mullen, and he’s been involved in plenty more similar searches since.
University President Mark Keenum noted in his introduction of Cohen that when he was hired to lead the school eight years ago, he quickly became accustomed to Cohen’s presence in meetings regarding athletics, even if they had little-to-nothing to do with baseball. In the time that Scott Stricklin served as MSU’s 16th athletic director, Cohen served as one of his most trusted confidantes.
It should be a surprise to neither of them that their relationship took that turn.
Stricklin once shared a story with Cohen that the former never forgot and the latter only barely remembered. During a doubleheader in Cohen’s senior year on State’s baseball team, there was a short rain delay. At that time, a freshman media relations student came up to him to chat. That student was, of course, Stricklin.
Stricklin asked Cohen, “What’s next? What do you want to do when you’re done?”
Baseball was the immediate plan, Cohen responded, as he hoped to make it to the big leagues eventually. However, Cohen had one more goal.
“I want to be an athletic director one day,” Cohen told Stricklin.
It certainly must have been a surreal moment for Cohen to share that story as he stood behind the podium from which he was introduced as the newest athletic director in the SEC.
That desire Cohen had even as a student stayed with him as throughout his career he was taken under the proverbial wings of the men tasked with running the departments at every coaching stop he made. He made connections and formed relationships and bonds with a great many people in the baseball world too, but professionally, at least a part of his focus always gravitated to those who, like him, had a curiosity and interest in all things.
“I just kept finding myself gravitating toward those athletic directors,” Cohen said. “I have to admit to you, I got hooked.”
Now, coming to the end of a decades-long career as a baseball coach, he has the opportunity to apply everything he learned from his mentors along the way. In fact, it would seem he’s already put much of that education-by-observation to use.
Cohen’s strengths as a baseball coach can often come across as more administrative than anything, though his reputation for working with hitters is celebrated across the college baseball landscape.
One of Cohen’s greatest assets has been his eye for personnel and talent. Multiple assistants hired under Cohen have gone on to become head coaches, including two in the SEC in the last year alone. The number of former Bulldogs making it to the big league increases by the week, while MSU has signed three-straight top-five recruiting classes. Cohen’s ability to evaluate and mark talented people is clear.
Academics have been a priority, and as such, the program has set multiple marks for record-high GPAs under Cohen’s supervision.
Cohen’s belief in a plan and process and his willingness to make unpopular decisions in the name of advancement have proven successful, showing a man with both a strong gut and a sharp mind, again in the non-literal senses.
Inside MSU’s baseball offices are binders laying out the complete program vision for the next several years. Projected rosters, numbers, analytics, personnel, facilities, the works – Cohen has not only built but executed a long-term vision for a championship program, winning the SEC Title this summer and taking MSU all the way to the championship series of the College World Series in 2013.
Even something as small as his idea to construct and decision to purchase the large, light-up M-S logo over the video board have shown a mind focused on more than RBI and ERA.
“I feel like my background is pretty linked in with what we’re going to try to do at Mississippi State,” he said.
Plus, perhaps above all, Cohen desperately wants to win.
“Mississippi State is going to win a National Championship in baseball,” Cohen declared. “And as President Keenum said, we are going to compete at the championship level in every sport on campus.”
His life’s dream – or one of them, anyway – starts now.