There were a lot of red eyes in Omaha Tuesday night. Even pretty tough young men getting ready to embark on pro baseball careers, some of them to make a lot of money, can get a little emotional when a dream comes to an end. It did for the 2013 Mississippi State Bulldogs when the Maroon and White were beaten by UCLA 8-0, capping a two-games-to-none College World Series Finals victory for the Bruins.
While the dream ended for some, it will continue for others but it was born some five years ago.
When John Cohen took over as head coach at his alma mater Mississippi State, things were not going well. The Bulldogs were coming off their worse season since going 0-12 in 1946. The program had had only one winning season in the SEC in the previous five years.
On top of all that, Cohen was replacing a legend and fan favorite in his former Head Coach and College Baseball Hall of Famer Ron Polk. To make matters even more difficult, Cohen wasn’t the man Polk wanted to succeed him. Polk favored his right-hand man Tommy Raffo, one of Cohen’s past teammates. A riff developed that time has yet to heal. So again, things weren’t great in Starkville.
At his introductory news conference, Cohen said he would bring a national championship to Mississippi State. Cohen admits that even his wife flinched. At that time, the Bulldogs had been to the College World Series eight times and not even the 1985 team of Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Jeff Brantley and Bobby Thigpen had won it all in Omaha. If a team of four future major leaguers couldn’t do it, how was the brash Cohen going to pull it off?
But the very next year Cohen’s Bulldogs got to Omaha and played for the national championship. No…it wasn’t quite that easy. In fact things got worse in Starkville before they got better. In Cohen’s first two seasons at Mississippi State, the Bulldogs finished a combined 15-44 in the SEC and missed the conference’s post-season tournament.
There were murmurs around the program that perhaps Polk had been right. Perhaps the Bulldogs should have chosen Raffo instead of Cohen. Perhaps the Mississippi State program had fallen so far behind other SEC programs that it had become an unwinnable job…that you just couldn’t get top-flight talent to come to Starkville anymore.
But progress was shown in 2011 and when Mississippi State got into the NCAA Tourney as a number three seed, things were starting to change…quickly. The Bulldogs swept through the Atlanta Regional beating Georgia Tech on their home field and then went to Florida and came within eight outs of upsetting the Gators and going to the CWS. That Florida team played for the national championship two weeks later.
Ever since that Regional at Georgia Tech, the Bulldogs have gone 21-8 in post-season play, winning a SEC Tournament Championship, NCAA Starkville Regional, Charlottesville (VA) Super Regional and now playing in the CWS National Championship Series.
To Cohen the fact that UCLA defeated his Bulldogs is just a bump in the road. Said Cohen, “What we did was knock on the door and UCLA has knocked on the door before, several times (it was the Bruins third trip to the CWS in the last four years), and they knocked down the door and we didn't do that.”
“Five years ago we inherited a club that won 23 ballgames. They climbed all the way to the top and we didn't finish the deal and that's disappointing, but certainly I'm proud of our players.”
“What this team has done is laid some foundation for some future teams, because we're going to come back here and we're going to win this thing. That's what we're here to do, that's why I came to Mississippi State, and we're going to keep knockin' that door down! “
Today that door is still standing, but the hinges are getting loose.