By JOEL COLEMAN
As a senior baseball player at Mississippi State over a quarter-century ago, John Cohen was waiting out a rain delay in Auburn. Up to Cohen walked a fellow student, a small-framed sports information guy by the name of Scott Stricklin, who posed Cohen a question about his future.
“He said, ‘Hey, John, what do you want to do? What’s next for you?’” Cohen said. “I told him I’d love to play professional baseball. I’d love to make it to the big leagues one day, but I would love to be an athletic director.”
Cohen never made it to Major League Baseball, but did spend a couple of years in the Minnesota Twins farm system. On Friday, he checked the final item off his list when Mississippi State named him the school’s 17th director of athletics.
“I love Mississippi State University,” Cohen said. “As a student, later as a coach, and now with this fantastic opportunity to lead MSU’s athletics program, this was always where I wanted to be.”
Ironically, Cohen fills the vacancy left by Stricklin, who departed MSU to become the athletic director at Florida. When Stricklin left, Mississippi State President Mark Keenum set in motion a national search to find Stricklin’s successor in which Keenum said he interviewed some of the nation’s top athletic department administrators. In the end, Keenum felt that the best man for the job was on campus all along.
“After reviewing those outstanding candidates, it became clear to me that John Cohen’s undeniable record of aggressively pursuing championships both as an MSU player and head coach positioned him best to continue the dynamic legacy of growth and accomplishment that MSU athletics has enjoyed in recent years,” Keenum said. “John understands that trajectory and has been an integral part of it and he can move the Bulldog family forward united.”
Terms of Cohen’s contract weren’t revealed, however several of the tasks that immediately await Cohen are clear. His first priority is to hire his replacement to take over the MSU baseball program.
A source told the Starkville Daily News on Thursday that LSU hitting coach and recruiting coordinator Andy Cannizaro will be Mississippi State’s next baseball coach. Cohen didn’t confirm that on Friday, but did hint that might be imminent.
“Andy is a person that I’ve known for awhile and I think he’s an outstanding person and an outstanding coach,” Cohen said. “I might revisit the subject of that gentleman here at some point, but not just right now.”
Cohen also inherits all of MSU’s upcoming athletic department projects, including overseeing the renovation of Dudy Noble Field. Cohen said all of those things remain on schedule.
“We’re certainly full speed ahead with all of our athletic department projects and (the renovated Dudy Noble Field) is one of them. We need to raise a little bit more money.
“We’ll start construction of Dudy Noble immediately after our (2017 baseball) season and that’ll be a big part of our responsibility.”
All that lies ahead for Cohen. What is now in the past is his baseball career. It was quite the journey for Cohen, both playing and coaching on the diamond. He won 284 games as a head coach in his eight seasons at MSU. He took the Bulldogs to the finals of the College World Series in 2013 and won a regular season Southeastern Conference championship just last season to highlight his tenure as State’s baseball leader.
When the season opens in February, Cohen admitted things might be a little strange for him.
“Contrary to public opinion, I’m human,” Cohen joked. “I’ll think about (not being in the dugout). I’ll be cheering for those kids, just like I will be cheering for all our student-athletes, but I’ll think about that. There will be a part of me that will miss being in that dugout, but I think about all the other opportunities that I’ll have.”
Perhaps it’ll take Cohen a little while to get used to putting on a suit and tie instead of a jersey and cap, but that’s fine to him. For now, he’s still in awe that the goal he set for himself more than 25 years ago has finally come to fruition.
“I feel like I’ve been blessed in so many ways,” Cohen said. “I’ve gotten two opportunities of a lifetime. I don’t know if anybody deserves what has been presented to me, but I’m most appreciative.”