Mississippi State recently concluded the 2015 campaign, its seventh season under Head Coach John Cohen. The 2015 season was one of the worst in school history, seeing the Diamond Dawgs finish with a 24-30 record overall, 8-22 in SEC play, and dead last in the conference. No SEC Tournament appearance and certainly no NCAA Tournament. But was this season a fluke for Cohen? Or is it part of a larger, more disturbing trend?
Here is a look at John Cohen's MSU tenure. How should we evaluate an MSU baseball head coach? There are two criteria in my mind: The first is SEC record and the second is NCAA Regional Hosts.
Let's start with Cohen's SEC record. After seven years at the helm, Cohen has amassed an SEC record of 87-122. That is an SEC winning percentage of .416. No matter how you look at it, that record is brutally bad.
"But WMD, that's not fair!!!! You can't count Cohen's first two seasons! He should get a pass, look at the mess leftover from Polk!!" First, that's ridiculous. What coach worth his salt believes his first season or two don't count? Rick Ray found out his first two seasons counted. Can you imagine the reaction if Mullen said "Man, I'm glad my first season didn't count. I've made a bowl every season I've been a head coach!" I guarantee you Cohen believes his first two seasons count. Second, I'll humor you and remove his first two seasons from the record. In his last 5 seasons, Cohen is still below .500 in the SEC at just 72-78. I ask, is that good enough for MSU baseball?
Riddle me this: Who was the last MSU baseball head coach to finish last in the SEC? If you guessed Ron Polk, then you're a winner. Polk finished 2008 last in the SEC, also in his seventh season at the helm, and was subsequently fired. He was also just one season removed from a College World Series appearance, whereas Cohen is two seasons removed from a CWS appearance. I'll grant the comparison isn't exactly apples-to-apples, as Cohen had us in the Championship Series and Polk went two and done. But it isn't an unfair comparison, either.
To break it down further, here are the individual season SEC records for Cohen:
In his seven years, Cohen has finished below .500 FOUR times. To balance that, he gave us our best SEC season in years in 2014, finishing with 18 wins. But for me personally, that doesn't erase the four terrible seasons. I understand it is no longer the 1980s. Schools are pouring more and more money into baseball, particularly within the SEC. We will never dominate the way we once did, and there will even be sub-.500 seasons. But that should NEVER be a regular occurrence. I'm talking one sub-.500 season every 10 years. We are no longer the top dog in the SEC, but we should certainly be considered a Top 5 program within the conference. Teams that are clearly above us right now: LSU, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt. They've all won the SEC Regular Season Title and at least one National Championship in the last 10 years. After those three, I'd put us, Florida, Texas A&M, Arkansas, and Mississippi on relatively equal footing. I believe that is where we are currently, even despite our finish this season. But we aren't far from falling out of that category into the group of bottom feeders, either. We haven't competed for an SEC Regular Season Title in twenty years or more. Is that the mark of a healthy, competitive program?
We'll move on to the second criterion for evaluating an MSU baseball head coach: Regional Hosts. This one is about as cut-and-dry as it gets. Cohen has managed one Host in seven years. That came in the historic 2013 Championship Series run. Other than that season, we really haven't even been a "bubble host" team. That's what happens when you struggle to finish .500 in conference play. Is one host in 7 years good enough for MSU baseball?
Let's be honest a minute: The criteria for picking hosts has changed. It's no longer based on money, but on record, or else we would host more often. But does that not place even more emphasis on the importance of in-conference success? I would say that it absolutely does. My expectations aren't outrageous. I think it is fair to think we should host 2-3 years out of 5. There is a direct correlation between hosting and the ability to make the CWS.
Furthermore, we have NO national seed Super Regional hosts under Cohen or since the Supers were introduced, for that matter. In fact, we haven't even been in the discussion as a possible national seed. Our only Super Regional Host came pre-Cohen, when we backed into it with Clemson. Is that good enough for MSU baseball? I believe a fair expectation is for MSU baseball to be a national seed and host a Super at least twice in a 10 year period. Cohen has us nowhere near that level after seven years.
Then we could look at all the subjective, intangible, and/or mental aspects. For instance, why did Cohen bat Jacob Robson 4th behind Wes Rea for essentially the entire season? Robson is not an RBI producer. He's a high OBP player and probably the fastest guy on the team. Hitting him behind Rea, the slowest guy on the team, robs him of his biggest asset as a player: his speed. Robson should have been hitting in the 1, 2, or 9 hole all season. We could also look at Cohen's incessant meddling. At one point this season, we had gone 82 straight games without the same lineup. Every baseball guy who's opinion I respect says the same thing: Having a set lineup is critical to maximizing player performance. Guys need to know they'll be playing and where they'll be hitting when they show up to the park. It helps them prepare better, sleep better, and ultimately perform better. Cohen is basically defying 100+ years of baseball logic. Whether he believes he's legitimately found a better way or whether he's become so desperate that he's doing anything he can think of, the results are speaking for themselves.
Should MSU baseball fire John Cohen? That's for people who know more than me to decide. There are lots of other factors that go into making a decision of that magnitude. For instance, we also appear to have issues with player development, issues with weight training and conditioning, issues with a lack of effort, and issues with a lack of player leadership. Those are very serious problems, on top of what we've already discussed. The situation is also complicated because Cohen is "one of us." He wore the M-over-S, the Maroon and White as a player. We are his dream job, and you can't convince me he doesn't want to win. Firing one of your own is especially hard and unpleasant. It can cause friction and hard feelings that may never be healed.
Personally, I believe Cohen will be given one more season to right the ship. But it is at least time to discuss whether or not Cohen should be our head baseball coach moving forward. I would also add that there need to be some very clear expectations of what Cohen needs to do next season in order to retain his job. Some believe just making postseason should be enough. I personally disagree. I think Cohen needs to be at least a 2 seed in order to stay. Why a 2 seed? Because in classic MSU fashion, I could see us slipping into a regional as a 3 on the road at Directional Louisiana but nothing of substance improving within the program. Cohen stays and we linger on, coming close, but never quite reaching, what we all believe MSU baseball is capable of achieving. The fan base will continue to divide into pro-Cohen and anti-Cohen camps. A 2 seed would show everyone that there has been substantive improvement within the program and get most of those on the fence or recently off the fence back on the wagon. I would also like to see some staff changes this offseason, most notably with our baseball S&C staff.
Here's what I do know: MSU baseball is not performing up to expectations with John Cohen. One Regional Host and zero Super Hosts in 7 years is black-and-white. Four sub-.500 SEC seasons out of 7 isn't a fluke; it's a trend. And it's a trend that should disturb everyone who calls themselves a fan of MSU baseball. Bottom line: No one is bigger than the program, bigger than the M-over-S, and that includes John Cohen.