Former bosses bullish on Cohen

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John Cohen was introduced Friday as Mississippi State University's new athletic director.

Russ Houston, Mississippi State University

John Cohen was introduced Friday as Mississippi State University’s new athletic director.

When Mississippi State interviewed and hired football coach Dan Mullen in Atlanta in December of 2008, four people were in the room: Mullen, then-MSU athletic director Greg Byrne, Scott Stricklin and …  John Cohen.

Cohen was five months into the job as baseball coach at State. He had not yet coached a State baseball game.

So, why was Cohen in that room?

“We wanted his perspective,” Stricklin says. “We wanted his insight. We wanted a coach’s perspective, and, plus, John is just so smart.”

“John was in every interview we did for that job,” said Byrne, now the athletic director at the University of Arizona. “Afterward, he broke down every coach, evaluating what they brought to the table. He is one of the best people at reading and evaluating other people I have ever been around.”

Here we are nearly eight years later and State football has been to six straight bowl games, won four. In 2014 State rose to No. 1 in the land and stayed there for five straight weeks – unprecedented territory for the Bulldogs. By any measure and despite the down season in 2016, the hiring of Mullen has been a remarkable success for State.

Rick Cleveland

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

Cohen was very much a part of it. Stricklin says he involved Cohen in many other major decisions during his six years as State’s athletic director.

Today, Cohen was named as Mississippi State’s 17th athletic director.

“He’s gonna be a great A.D.,” Stricklin says of Cohen. “He has all the attributes, plus he loves Mississippi State.”

An athletic director’s job is that of a CEO, only slightly more complex.

Says Stricklin, “You have to make unemotional decisions that many times are based on people’s emotions. You have a bad Saturday in football, and people want you to do something about it, make changes that might not make much sense in the long run. By the same token, you win a big game and those same people want you to give a big raise and a long-term contract that might not be in the best interest of the program. You have to make unemotional decisions in the midst of all that emotion. I don’t know of any other profession quite like it. Everybody else is doing the work and you are responsible for them. The ability to relate to people well – and I’m talking about athletes, coaches, staff, boosters – is critical.”

Stricklin, now the athletic director at Florida, was named the top athletic director in the country for his work at State. Asked to name the top three attributes for an athletic director, he listed these:

• Ability to evaluate and relate to coaches/staff

• Vision to anticipate things that need to happen

• Self-confidence to stand tall when things get tough

“John’s got ’em all,” Stricklin said. “The reason I involved him in so many major decisions at State was because I trusted his insights and judgment. I took a lot of issues to him that did not involve baseball. I wanted his perspective. I like the way his mind works. He would always bring up points I hadn’t thought of. I like being around smart people, and John is incredibly intelligent.”

Nobody has ever doubted Cohen’s intelligence, his vision or his self-confidence. When you look at Stricklin’s three essential attributes of an athletic director, the one that concerns you where Cohen is concerned is that first one – essentially, people skills.

Perhaps because of his comportment on the baseball field, many see Cohen as brash and combative.

“All I can tell you is that people who doubt John’s ability to relate to people just haven’t been around him, haven’t spent much time with him,” Stricklin said. “He doesn’t come off as approachable, warm and fuzzy, and I think a lot of that has to do with his personna as a baseball coach. Trust me, he knows how to deal with people.”

Cohen was a fiery coach, just as he was a fiery player. He was, and surely still is, uber-competitive.

We talked about that recently.

“What happens between the lines in baseball and what happens off the field are two very different things,” Cohen said. “I know some people think of me as combative because of what they’ve seen on the diamond. I am not that way off the field.”

Cohen believes managing the 11.7 scholarships in baseball to be some of the best training an athletic director can possibly get. As he put it, “You talk about something that demands people skills.”

My take: Cohen will succeed or fail based on how he manages people. That’s what an athletic director does: deal with people – hire them, fire them, inspire them, scold them, and most of all, lead them.

Greg Byrne and Scott Stricklin, both extremely proficient at all that, strongly believe Cohen has what it takes.

Cohen, Ross Bjork go far back

Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.