Cohen was a Bulldog before he turned Cat

By Matthew George

Mississippi State head coach Ron Polk may know more about John Cohen than any member of UK baseball’s fandom.

Polk, who coached Cohen at MSU from 1988 to 1990, has known the Cats’ head man as a pupil, a friend and an opponent in the fierce Southeastern Conference.

In all three acquaintanceships, he described Cohen as a high-intensity, high-energy person who always demonstrated tremendous character.

But Cohen was not always the perfect disciple. Though Polk said he loved Cohen’s on-the-field intensity and referred to him as a “gamer,” he admitted there were occasions during his playing days that Cohen had to be disciplined.

“He was high strung, there’s no question about it, and he had to be calmed down,” Polk said.

Polk spoke of an incident during a game in Hawaii. An angered Cohen threw his bat in disgust, causing his coach to sit him for the rest of the game.

“But he handled it well,” Polk said. “He understands, and I think right now he imparts that stuff to his players.”

Similar lessons helped build a kinship that continues to flourish. As No. 10 UK (23-4, 5-4) welcomes MSU to Lexington for a three-game weekend series beginning today, Cohen could not bottle his excitement to see his old friend.

“He’s been a father figure to me since I was 19 years old,” Cohen said.

As a Bulldog, Cohen advanced to the NCAA regionals three times, including a 1990 run to the College World Series and an SEC Championship in 1989. By the time his three-year career was over, he ranked in the top-10 in several statistical categories at MSU.

Cohen said that as great of a baseball guy as Polk was, it was the other lessons he learned as a Bulldog — the life lessons — that he has carried with him throughout his coaching career.

“I would not be standing here talking to you guys right now if it weren’t for Ron Polk,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

Polk said he has taken pride in watching Cohen blossom as a coach. In just five years at the helm of the program, Cohen has led UK to its first SEC Championship, its first time hosting an NCAA Regional and back-to-back 19-0 season starts, a school record.

“I knew John would do well; I knew when he was an assistant at Missouri,” Polk said.

“He’s done exactly what I thought he would do,” Polk said. “He’s given that team a very good energy boost, and that’s what John Cohen is all about.”

The reunion between the two friends will be short lived. From a baseball standpoint, the series is pivotal for both clubs.

The first weekend of May marks the halfway point of the regular season.

At 5-4, the Cats’ conference record would put them in first place in the SEC Western Division. But residing in the East, the mark has UK locked in a tie for last.

The Bulldogs, who advanced to the College World Series a season ago, have struggled to replace players lost to last year’s MLB draft and to injuries, and have stumbled to an SEC-worst 2-7 conference record.

At a perfect 18-0, UK’s clip at home is proof that playing in the friendly confines of Cliff Hagan Stadium should give it an edge, something Cohen said the Cats have to take advantage of.

“Every mound is different, every infield surface is different,” he said. “You’ve got to dominate at home because everything is familiar to you.”

The trip to Lexington might be Polk’s last. The 31-year MSU head coach announced at the start of SEC play that he will retire at the end of the season.

Cohen said he would love it if Polk changed his mind and decided to continue coaching. But as fond as his feelings for Polk are, when game one’s first pitch is thrown, Cohen said his competitiveness will take over.

“That’s kind of the nature of my personality,” Cohen said. “Once we step on the field, I become a different human being.”