STARKVILLE — John Cohen gets the question a lot these days.
Who would be the Mississippi State athletic director’s choice right now for SEC baseball coach of the year?
“It’s incredibly difficult to answer,” Cohen said.
With three weekends left in the regular season, it’s a tough question because three coaches have led their respective teams to 14-7 records: Andy Cannizaro’s Mississippi State team and Butch Thompson’s Auburn squad are tied for first in the SEC West while Nick Mingione’s Kentucky group is atop the SEC East.
What makes answering the question even harder for Cohen is his relationship with each coach; they are all under the former Mississippi State skipper’s coaching tree. Cannizaro was Cohen’s first hire in November, Thompson was MSU’s pitching coach under Cohen for seven years and Mingione was an assistant coach for Cohen first with Kentucky from 2006-07 and then with the Bulldogs from 2009-16.
All three are also in their first or second year as a head coach.
“It’s a pretty cool deal,” Cannizaro said.
It’s a lot of fun for Cohen — until, perhaps, someone asks that question.
“What Nick has done at Kentucky is incredible and what Butch has accomplished in the evolution of two years is equally incredible,” Cohen said. “And what Andy has done with a club that has lost, in my opinion, six big-time quality arms that would propel them right now if they had them available … the way he has held the ship together and what he has gotten out of the offense and defense, he deserves a great deal of consideration also.”
That’s a safe answer, but there is plenty of truth there.
Auburn, which won two games in a three-game series at Dudy Noble Field over the weekend, was picked to finish last in the SEC in the preseason coaches’ poll. The Tigers, who don’t play Kentucky in the regular season, went 23-33 overall and 8-22 in the SEC last year, Thompson’s first with the team after taking over for Sunny Golloway. Golloway filed a federal civil lawsuit against Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs, claiming he was wrongfully terminated.
“Butch took a difficult situation in Auburn and I just think he has done an incredible job,” Cohen said. “He stayed on course and stayed true to himself even when things weren’t going right for him a year ago.”
Over at Kentucky, Mingione, like Cannizaro, is in his first year as a head coach. Kentucky hasn’t had a losing season overall since 2011, but the Wildcats have finished fourth in the East the last four years and that’s exactly where they were picked to finish in the preseason poll.
“Nick brings an incredible energy and great vision,” Cohen said. “He has done a masterful job at Kentucky and there was no doubt in my mind he was going to do a great job.”
Then there is Cannizaro at MSU. After winning the SEC last year, the Bulldogs were picked to finish fourth because of their inexperience; 11 players were drafted from last year’s group and all of them except for Brent Rooker left. While breaking in new starters on the diamond, Cannizaro has also dealt with a rash of injuries to pitchers — seven MSU pitchers are now out for the year. MSU wo n the three-game series against Kentucky earlier this season .
“What I admire most about Andy is he really hasn’t been conservative,” Cohen said. “He has added an element of the stolen base and has been extremely aggressive offensively. The way he and (MSU pitching coach) Gary Henderson have pieced together the pitching has been masterful. Andy is a guy who gets the most out of his players while being a disciplinarian and also being extremely fair.”
Cohen sees some of the same traits in qualities in all three coaches, which makes sense, considering he hired them all. They have areas of expertise — Thompson with pitching, Mingione with recruiting and Cannizaro with scouting — with exceptional communication skills, patience and relatability to players.
In turn, the three coaches said they are indebted to Cohen, who has a 605–399–2 career record as a head coach with stops at Northwestern State, Kentucky and MSU, for the opportunities and for what they have learned. Cannizaro, for example, has been able to bounce ideas off of Cohen. When Thompson was associate head coach at MSU, Cohen had Thompson speak at fundraisers, alumni functions and national coaching conventions to get Thompson used to being the face of a program.
“One of the greatest things I learned from John Cohen is that he was never threatened by other coaches’ opinions,” Mingione told D1Baseball’s Derek Terry. “So he is the opposite of a micro-manager. So when other people had idea, if there was a better way to do something, he wanted to do, he wanted to hear about it. That’s how I am with our coaches.”
The Cohen coaching tree doesn’t end with Mingione, Thompson and Cannizaro, and it will continue to grow. Henderson — who was the Kentucky head coach until last season — Auburn assistants Brad Bohannon and Greg Drye, MSU assistants Will Coggin, Mike Brown and Lee VanHorn and Arkansas pitching coach Wes Johnson all have ties to Cohen.
“When you have some type of connection to Butch, Nick and Andy, among others, it’s a special feeling,” Cohen said. “When you’re a younger coach you don’t realize … you think everything is about winning and losing, but when you get a little bit older, being able to see people that you worked with that you were so close to have success really feels good, too.”