Cohen replaces legendary Polk, despite former coach's protests
JACKSON, Miss. -- John Cohen is coming home to Mississippi State to win a national championship.
That was the message the former Bulldogs outfielder delivered to hundreds of fans who greeted him at news conferences in Starkville and Jackson on Saturday, a day after he resigned at Kentucky and took the job over the objection of former coach Ron Polk.
"I wouldn't be who I am without Ron Polk," Cohen told fans in Starkville. "I understand his position and I admire his loyalty. Obviously I'd love to have his support. But we've still got to win a national championship, and that is my primary goal. For Mississippi State baseball, anything less than Omaha is unacceptable."
Polk built Mississippi State into a powerhouse over three decades. When he announced his retirement in March, he endorsed his assistant, Tommy Raffo.
When incoming athletic director Greg Byrne made Cohen, and not Raffo, his first hire, Polk lashed out. He called the 36-year-old Byrne unqualified and said he will be taking his name off the stadium and the athletic department out of his will.
Byrne, who officially takes over from Larry Templeton in July, said Saturday he would not respond directly to Polk's comments so the focus would remain on Cohen, whom he first met while working in Kentucky's athletic department. But he admitted to a tough 48 hours while finalizing the hire and serving as a friend's pallbearer.
"And the night before [the funeral] I had to call Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart and tell him I was about to hire a coach that he did not want to lose and tried desperately to keep," Byrne said.
Cohen, 41, earned a Southeastern Conference championship and league coach of the year in 2006, feats he achieved twice in the Southland Conference at Northwestern State.
He's known for his abilities to put runs on the scoreboard and tutor hitters. After two years of boosting Florida's offensive output on the way to an SEC title, he took over at last-place Kentucky and posted a pair of school-record 44-win seasons on the way to a 175-113-1 mark in five seasons (321-197-1 overall in nine seasons).
Cohen will make sure the Bulldogs share his aggressive attitude.
"I believe in attacking the opponent, really getting after it," Cohen said. "That's the way it will be at Mississippi State. And if the kids aren't interested in that form of baseball, they won't get along well with John Cohen. I'm not trying to sound like Darth Vader or anything, but I'm also not going to pretend to be someone I'm not."
The Wildcats were ranked much of the season and were a win away from a super regional berth. The team set or tied 10 records this season. Barnhart said Friday when he announced Cohen's resignation that he made a hard run at keeping the coach in Lexington. He offered to upgrade Cohen's $400,000 salary and improve facilities to make the school more attractive to recruits.
"Had John accepted our offer, in my opinion, he would have had one of the top five contracts in the nation for a baseball coach," Barnhart said.
Cohen agreed to a four-year contract worth $250,000 a year in state funds. He'll also receive an undisclosed amount in private money that will push his total salary past Polk's nearly $300,000. He turned down a 10-year contract with Kentucky that would have included a significant raise to his $400,000 annual salary.
While he's surpassed Polk in salary figures, it will take some time for him to overtake his former coach on the field.
The 64-year-old retired after the season at No. 7 on the career wins list with 1,373 in 35 years. He took three teams to eight College World Series appearances and is the SEC's winningest coach. He is a howling critic of the NCAA, credited by his colleagues with helping to legitimize the sport and push the conference to its elite status.
Polk said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press that he asked Cohen not to move so Raffo, Cohen's former Bulldogs teammate under Polk from 1987-90, could get a shot at his first head coaching job. He threatened to actively work to dismantle key components of a program he helped build into one of the nation's best.
"I'm not totally ticked off at John," Polk said in a phone interview from Athens, Ga., where he is attending a super regional at Georgia. "This is not John. This is Greg Byrne. John felt like if he didn't take it, someone else would. I told John everything I was going to do and he still took the job. Boy, he must've really wanted it bad."
Cohen did. He told fans his wife probably summed it up best.
"I overheard my wife on the phone and someone asked her why I wanted to take the job and coach at Mississippi State," Cohen said. "She said, 'Every musician wants to play Carnegie Hall, and Dudy Noble [Field] is the Carnegie Hall of college baseball.'"
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
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