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WJTV – It was a pretty busy week for John Cohen.
The Mississippi State athletic director had a daughter graduate college while the baseball program he led to a SEC regular season title a year ago was trying to capture a tournament championship. Of course, that group is led by the man Cohen hired to be his replacement, Andy Cannizaro.
But that wasn’t the only guy in Hoover, Alabama that owes quite a bit to the man who is just one of two coaches to be named SEC Coach of the Year at two different schools.
“There has not been one day since I’ve been hired that I have not thought about him,” Kentucky head coach Nick Mingione said. “I call him and I tell him how much I appreciate everything he’s done for me.”
“I think I learned how to be a man and John just really helped me kind of find myself and develop my identity by helping me get me out of my comfort zone,” Auburn head coach Butch Thompson said. “I’m forever thankful.”
Mingione, the reigning SEC Coach of the Year, is in his first year as the Wildcats’ head coach. Thompson is in his second year with the Tigers. Both were longtime assistants under Cohen at Mississippi State, who coached the Bulldogs to a College World Series appearance, SEC regular season championship, and SEC tournament title from 2009 to 2016.
Mingione was in Starkville for Cohen’s entire tenure as the recruiting coordinator while working with the team’s outfielders, first basemen, and hitters. He also worked under him in 2006 and 2007 when Cohen was the head coach at Kentucky.
Thompson spent seven seasons with the Bulldogs as the team’s pitching coach and associate head coach. In 2014, he was named the Baseball America and American Baseball Coaches Association National Assistant Coach of the Year.
But even with all of the success in Starkville, both head coaches said Cohen never tried to hold his two prized assistants back from getting promotions.
“He did everything he could to try and help me,” Mingione said. “And you know what, that’s not common. Most bosses don’t want to help their assistants move on. They like to hang on, especially when we had a really good thing going.”
“I just feel like it’s my job to help them become a head coach,” Cohen said.
Thompson and Mingione will tell you Cohen never held them down to just be assistants. Both enjoyed the autonomy and freedom he gave them to use their talents.
“It’s funny you say that because I feel that way with my daughters a little bit,” Cohen said with a laugh. “In order for somebody to really give you everything they got, you can’t stifle their creativity and you have to allow them to make mistakes.”
“He’s the opposite of a micromanager,” Mingione said. “He’s never threatened by someone else’s opinions. So if there’s another way or idea, his brain never stops wanting to learn.”
“We allowed our pitchers and catchers to call pitches,” Thompson said. “That was huge. I just like all the freedom that he gave his coaches.”
But while each of them enjoyed that control, they still had developments to make to eventually earn their current jobs.
Thompson’s credentials as one of the top pitching coaches in the country spoke for themselves.
“Butch had already been around the league,” Cohen said. “He was already loved by scouts, professional scouts. He was loved by players, he was so good at the recruiting process.”
The issue was the Amory native was a little shy.
“I never wanted to get out in public and speak and he made me speak at the national convention,” Thompson said.
It didn’t stop there.
“I made him create an instructional DVD,” Cohen said. “He didn’t want to do it. But the reason I wanted him to is because it takes so much time. It takes so much editing. You’re putting yourself out there. It might be the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done. You listen to your own voice and it makes you sick. But you learn so much about your craft in trying to tell people what your beliefs are.”
“I had never embarked on any kind of mission to put together a DVD,” Thompson said. “I would’ve never had that thought. And at the time, I’m like man, he’s getting me out of my comfort zone.”
Mingione was involved in the DVD as well. Cohen immediately noticed the young coach’s energy and enthusiasm, but acknowledged he needed some more seasoning to reach his head coaching potential.
“He was so youthful,” Cohen said. “It was kind of a little more difficult to envision it with Nick just because he looked like he was 18 or 19 years old.”
“I always felt like he was two and three moves ahead of everybody else,” Mingione said. “The whole time I just started coaching with him, I’m trying to play catch-up. So I quickly knew that being an assistant, part of your job is to serve your head coach and man, that was hard for me to do at first because he was always moving three moves ahead of me.”
So he went to become a recruiting coordinator at Western Carolina in 2008. When he reunited with Cohen in Starkville in 2009, the then Bulldog head coach noticed the experienced had paid dividends.
“I was like okay, this guy has been out in the world, he has done some things,” Cohen said. “Yeah, this guy is going to be a head coach at a very high level.”
The first-year head coach of the Wildcats has proven his former boss’s prediction to be accurate so far. Kentucky is 39-20 and is one of the regional hosts for this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Meanwhile, Thompson has led Auburn to a 12-win improvement from his first to second year. The Tigers are the No. 3 seed in the Tallahassee regional for the NCAA Tournament.
Both coaches continue to credit Cohen for their early success.
“I show up in Lexington, Kentucky and I feel totally prepared for this job because of the freedom that he provided me and everything he taught me,” Mingione said.
“I think because he let us coach,” Thompson said. “I think because he let us talk to folks. I think because he let us work that I think both Nick and myself are prepared and we’re ready for this task.”
Cohen was confident they would succeed based on their successes on the recruiting trail.
“In the last eight years with me, they have won a lot of recruiting battles,” Cohen said. “When you see them winning recruiting battles, you know they’re going to do well as a head coach.”
But now, Cohen himself had to do some quick recruiting to fill the void he left. Luckily, he already had a guy in mind who fit the two models he helped move forward.
“There were so many factors with Andy,” Cohen said. “Andy is an unbelievable candidate. He really reminded me in many ways of Butch and Nick, kind of a combination of those two guys really.”
The day after Cohen was introduced in his new position, he named former LSU hitting coach Andy Cannizaro as his successor. The new manager at Mississippi State had some previous interactions with Cohen on scouting trips he made to Starkville for the New York Yankees.
But now, he had to try and fill the shoes of a guy who just led the program to its first-ever national seed the year before. So he had some homework to do.
“The biggest thing is he’s navigated the SEC for so many years and knows what it takes to win,” Cannizaro said. “He and I speak regularly. He’s the one that recruited a lot of these kids and he’s the one that spent years coaching them. And then I showed up basically at the start of the season, so I really relied on him for a lot of the background information on our players.”
“The only things I try to fill him on are things that have happened in the past that he might not be aware of,” Cohen said. “I tell him all the time this is your program and you have to make the best decisions possible. We have great discussions. Andy is somebody who is constantly in search of information. He is so incredibly positive. I think it’s pretty obvious to the entire baseball community that he was going to be a head coach and be a very successful head coach.”
And in his first season, he’s had to prove that under very difficult circumstances. Coming into 2017, Mississippi State had already lost 10 players to the MLB Draft. But on top of that, the team also lost eight pitchers for the season due to injury.
That hasn’t slowed the Bulldogs down from winning 36 games while going 17-13 in the SEC. They are the No. 2 seed in the Hattiesburg regional, staying in-state for the NCAA Tournament.
“I think he’s done remarkably well,” Cohen said. “I don’t think he deals with pressure. I mean, he’s such a positive guy, I don’t think he internalizes pressure the way a lot of other people do. And I think that’s the mark of a really good coach. He deals with really difficult or uncomfortable situations with an ease that I’ve rarely seen in the coaching profession.”
Cannizaro has noticed Cohen’s former pupils’ success as well. He said it comes as no surprise.
“If you show up to work each and every day with your eyes and ears open, you’re going to have an understanding of what it takes to have success in this league,” Cannizaro said. “John prepared those guys to have success as head coaches in the league and those guys have gone out and made him look really good.”
That makes Cohen feel even better. His rooting interest, while obviously loyal to his alma mater, is definitely a little more diverse now.
“It makes Friday night an interesting thing for me,” Cohen sad. “When we’re not playing those guys, obviously I want them to do well. You take pride in that because it’s fun to watch.”
That’s all he can do now. Sit back and watch his two pupils, and his successor, shine.