Jun 23, 2013; Omaha, NE, USA; Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach John Cohen takes questions during a press conference at the College World Series in TD Ameritrade Park. Mandatory Credit: Dave Weaver-USA Today Sports
This year’s baseball season may be the most anticipated season ever in the history of Mississippi State athletics. As we prepare for the season, I will do a Fact or Fiction each day this week about the baseball team as we lead into the first game against Hofstra on Friday. Today, has Cohen surpassed his own legendary coach?
Ron Polk was great but he doesn’t have anything on John Cohen.
I don’t know if this is the prevailing thought among Bulldog fans, but there are definitely some who think this way. If you’re a Mississippi State fan and you had one game to win, and you had to choose between Ron Polk and John Cohen as your coach to win that game, who would you choose? It’s not an easy one to make.
The case for Polk
If you are only familiar with Ron Polk’s second stint as the head coach of Mississippi State Baseball, this choice is probably easy for you. You’d take Cohen in a heartbeat, and there isn’t a single person would blame you for doing so. But most of us are familiar with what Ron Polk did as head coach the first time around, and that makes this decision a lot more difficult.
Just how good of a coach was Ron Polk? He spent 29 seasons as the coach of the Bulldogs, and not only is he the winningest coach in our school’s history, he is the winningest coach in all SEC sports. He compiled a 1139-590 record as the head coach at Mississippi State, took 20 of his 29 teams to the NCAA tournament, and appeared in the College World Series 6 times, the best showing coming in 1985 when the Bulldogs made it to the national Semifinals. He is the “Father of SEC Baseball”
Had it not been for Ron Polk, SEC baseball would be an afterthought to most programs. No one made money off of baseball in the SEC until Ron Polk proved that it could be done. He convinced the athletic department to invest in the program, and he gave them one of the best returns ever seen on an investment. Mississippi State has one of the best baseball programs in the country because of Ron Polk.
As much good as Polk did, he almost wiped it all away before he resigned after the 2008 season. He spent seven seasons as the head coach when he returned to the program for a second season. There were a lot of peaks and valleys during those seven years. He managed to get the Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament five of those seven years, and he even managed to make an improbable run to the College World Series in 2007. But despite those tournament appearances, the program was not the same as it was the first time Polk was in charge of the program.
In his first stint, over the course of 22 seasons, Polk compiled an SEC record of 326-213, a .605 winning percentage. In his second stint, his SEC record was 93-111, a winning percentage of only .456. It is easy to make the argument that Polk benefited his second time around from an expanded NCAA tournament field.
Not only was the team not winning the way it once did, Polk decided to burn a lot of bridges on his way out. He was so disgusted with former Athletic Director Greg Byrne for choosing Cohen over his own assistant Tommy Raffo that he demanded the school remove his name from Polk-Dement stadium until Byrne no longer worked for the school. He went on a tirade about how much he despised the current administration. It has left a lot of fans with a very bitter taste in their mouth when it comes to Polk.
The case for Cohen
John Cohen was left with a pile of ashes when he took over as head coach for the 2009 season. Polk, once an incredible recruiter, had done a poor job at best the previous seasons of bringing in talent to Starkville. Despite that, there was a lot of hope for the future. He came to State from Kentucky, a team that had never experienced success in baseball, and took them to two different NCAA tournaments. He was also a player in the 1980s for Polk, so he knew what it took to lead a successful team.
The biggest obstacle facing Cohen was patience from the fan base. Most Bulldog fans knew that Cohen faced a monumental task, but the one sport we always knew we could win at was baseball. We weren’t used to being asked to be patient when it came to the baseball team. The first two seasons for Cohen went as about as well as most could have expected. The two seasons saw the Bulldogs scrape together 15 wins against 44 losses. In the process though, Cohen was accumulating talent and players that played the way he wanted them to.
Year 3 brought in the hope of at least getting to the NCAA tournament. There wasn’t a ton of pitching or hitting depth, but there was some talent. The Bulldogs scraped together a 14-16 record in SEC play, which earned them a trip to the Atlanta Regional. There, they mowed down the field unexpectedly, and advanced to the Super Regional against Florida, where they were just a few innings away from a mind blowing upset before the Gators were able to rally and advance to Omaha.
2012 saw Cohen ride the strong pitching staff to a 16-14 record and an unexpected SEC tournament championship. The Bulldogs entered the NCAA tournament as a potential darkhorse to make it to Omaha, but the strong pitching that Mississippi State relied upon so heavily let them down in the Tallahassee regional. Samford used the long ball to mow down the Bulldogs on two separate occasions and eliminated them from the tournament.
The 2013 season is the reason so many Bulldog fans believe we might have our best coach ever. A team that had no dominant starter, and relied as heavily on their bullpen as any other team in the history of the sport had, coupled with an offense that was good but not intimidating, you had to wonder just what to expect from this Bulldogs squad. The preseason rankings had the Bulldogs all over the top 25, one listing them as high as 5th in the country. Much of that was due in large part to Brandon Woodruff and Jacob Lindgren being top notch starters. Both would battle injuries all year, limiting both their effectiveness and their appearances. The Bulldogs managed to win enough games to scrape together a 16-14 record, but a strong finish allowed them to host an NCAA Regional.
They won the regional after a slight scare from #4 seed Central Arkansas. In the final game of the season, Chad Girodo put together a masterful performance that secured the Bulldogs birth to the Super Regionals. In Charlottesville, The Bulldogs used their pitching and an unexpected outburst of offense to power their way back to Omaha. The Bulldogs continued their timely hitting and pitching depth and were able to play in the first National Championship round of any sport for the school before being eliminated in two games by the UCLA Bruins.
For now, this is fiction, but it could change a lot quicker than many once thought was possible. Cohen has a team that could make a run at a national title this year. If he wins one, then this will be much more of a fact. Until then, it’s hard to wipe away what a legend Ron Polk was, despite the way he left the program. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Cohen helps people start thinking we have two coaching legends soon enough.