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Athletic Director In Residence: John Cohen

By John Cohen


Heading toward the finish line of your first year at the helm, how would assess your productivity and what is the most significant lesson learned?


While very few individuals become the athletic director of a Power 5 institution without any prior administrative experience, I’m fortunate in that I was always surrounded by administrative role models who helped me every step of the way. From our former AD Scott Stricklin (who I’ve spoken to almost every day since taking over the AD position), to my former boss and mentor Mitch Barnhart at Kentucky and the AD who hired me at MSU, Greg Bryne… I’ve received tremendous guidance and feedback from these great leaders.


There’s certainly nothing easy about managing an athletic department. Combine that with the responsibility of leading hundreds of people every day. There is no time for learning curve but I try to learn something every day; even after spending three decades as a head coach. But for me, being an alumnus of Mississippi State and understanding of the university’s culture and nuances, I felt that I was as equipped as anybody to take the reins of the department.


That being said, the last several months have reinforced the importance of listening to people from every level of our University. I have learned that there has to be a healthy balance between looking at the big picture and understanding the minute details as well. As a coach, it’s easy to look out on the field, see what your team needs to improve upon and move forward. Moreover, you can just blow a whistle and have your team make immediate adjustments although student-athlete development overall is a long process. I’ve come to realize it doesn’t work quiet that easily in an administrative setting. It requires finesse, relationships, and and a great deal of patience.


What is your philosophy on student-athlete enhancement programs and the role they play in the student-athlete experience? How do you support and promote the work your staff does to prepare your students for life after college?


We are aggressively pursuing the best Life Skills support that we can provide for our Student-Athletes. We are in the process of hiring our first sports psychologist, and have invested in educational Life Skills programs and training for our entire department staff, as well as upgrades to our facilities.


As a former coach, I completely understand that our first goal is to support our student-athletes and help them be successful on and off the field. More importantly, over the years Ive gained perspective on the tremendous scrutiny that these student-athletes now face on a day to day basis because of social media. Several years ago, you played your game, maybe there would be a recap in the local paper the next day, and that was it. Now you play every game in front of a live television audience, and everything that you do gets broadcast and amplified to thousands of people around the world. Make the smallest mistake, and every single person you know (and many more you don’t) has an opinion on how you played..


It is very important to me that we reach out to our student-athletes and make sure they are having a positive experience. We also want to make sure that we are preparing them for a career outside of their playing career.


My brother has been a junior college football coach for 6 years and is looking at opportunities to transition to athletic administration.  What actionable tactics can he use to do that?


Since becoming athletic director at State, the question I get asked the most is simply “Why and How?” The reality is I knew that I eventually wanted to transition into administration, but certainly didn’t know if this would be possible. Im extremely fortunate that things just worked out for me.


I’ve always observed and asked questions. This curiosity along with the fact that Ive had some outstanding mentors have contributed to my path.   I have always had an interest in how an athletic department operates, from turf management to game administration…from sports information to sports medicine.   I was also extremely fortunate to be involved in coaching and administrative hires.


The truth is that coaches have an unbelievable opportunity to involve themselves in the day-to-day operations of their athletic departments, to learn firsthand from the people on the ground doing what they are interested in, and it simply requires them to ask. While some might think their time is better spent doing coaching related, I can’t begin to convey all of the ways I improved in my coaching career because I took the time to learn how those around me were doing their jobs.


You have credited your predecessor, Scott Stricklin, for his guidance in helping you break into athletic administration from coaching.  You recently mentioned in an interview that you still speak to Scott nearly every day.  How are you distinguishing your leadership style from his?  What is one example of something you have identified you needed to handle differently from him?


When I was a young baseball coach, I wanted to imitate other great coaches and managers. I found out quickly that you can’t simply imitate someone, no matter how successful they are… what worked for others doesn’t necessarily work for you. You can learn from others, compare situations, but eventually you have to tailor your own plans to match your personality and the conditions of your environment.


Scott did a tremendous job as our AD, and he created an outstanding culture at MSU. That being said, Scott has always told me to… “Be true to myself.” I believe this to be really good advice.


Going from the dugout to ADs chair, what are some things that you have done during your transition to educate yourself on areas of the department that you may not have known as much about previously?


The responsibility that goes into running a major university, the amount of coordination and leadership necessary from so many parties, never ceases to amaze me. Our University has tremendous leadership from the top down. I have learned so much from our President-Dr. Mark Keenum. His vision, knowledge and leadership is of the highest level.   As a coach, you can be in a cocoon at times trying to concentrate solely on your team. This singular focus can blind you as to all of the wonderful things that are happening at your school. As an athletic director, you simply can’t do that. You have to be in tune with everything that is happening with each sports program, university as a whole.


Which skill from your coaching career has been the greatest asset in your current role?
Constantly be willing to re-prioritize. There are going to be several events that happen in a week that will shift your focus immediately, trust the people around you to do their job and make the best decision you can.   Young coaches sometime try to micromanage every aspect of their program, but eventually, they realize it’s simply not productive. We must focus on the big picture, but understand that the details matter. There has to be a great balance between the needs of the individual and the greater good of the program.