Florida State expected to be hosting an Division I Baseball Regional this week. The Seminoles just didn’t know they would also be entertaining a coaching reunion for the other three participants in the Tallahassee Regional.
Second-seeded Mississippi State and No. 4 UAB have many connections between the two programs. MSU head coach John Cohen was a member of the Bulldogs’ program at the same time UAB head coach Brian Shoop was an assistant coach under Ron Polk at MSU. Polk, retired from Mississippi State, is currently a volunteer assistant on Shoop’s UAB staff. In addition, MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson played for and coached with Shoop at Birmingham Southern, leading the Panthers to the 2001 NAIA national championship.
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UAB and No. 3 Samford are both located in Birmingham, Ala. Several players from both programs work the other’s summer camps, and Shoop was a longtime friend of the deceased Sammy Dunn, a legendary Alabama high school coach and father of Samford head coach Casey Dunn.
Got all that? Try to keep it straight.
“When I saw the rest of the field — Samford and Mississippi State — I may have been a little disappointed, only because they are all friends and I’d want for all of them to win,” Shoop said. He and Cohen first met when Shoop was an assistant at MSU, and Cohen was in high school. Shoop coached Cohen on a summer league team — the Bryan Packers, sponsored by Bryan Foods as Shoop fondly remembers.
“It was the best summer of my baseball life,” Cohen said. “I really enjoyed playing for [Shoop], and he was the one who recruited be out of high school even though I went to Birmingham Southern my first year.”
Shoop remembers a very specific at-bat of Cohen’s while the summer team was playing a tournament in New Orleans.
“I don’t get thrown out of many games, but on that day I got thrown out of the game,” Shoop said. “John came up to bat and hit a home run, stomped on home plate and said, ‘Nobody throws out my coach.’ That is a very revealing of John Cohen’s competitiveness. That is probably one of the reasons for his team’s success. Teams take on the personality of their coach, and I’m sure they’re very fiery and competitive.”
After a year at Birmingham Southern, Cohen transferred to Mississippi State where Shoop was his outfielder coach. During that time, Cohen gained a greater respect of Shoop’s talents as a coach and goodness as a person.
“He is one of the great infield coaches in America,” Cohen said. “He really understands infield play. He’s a brilliant tactician of the game all the way around. He is so invested in his players, not only as athletes, but as people. Coach Shoop walks the walk — everything he teaches is also everything that he is off the field. I have great respect for him. There have been many times in my career that I’ve picked up the phone and asked what do you think about this or that. He’s somebody I trust.”
Thomspon coached on Shoop’s staff at BSC for seven years, and has now been at Mississippi State for four years as Cohen’s pitching coach.
“There are many, many times when Butch and I will be sitting in the office together, and I will say, ‘How would Shoop handle this,’ or ‘What would Shoop think about this?’ ” Cohen said. “We have that much respect for him.”
Shoop said Thompson is like a son, and the two families are very close.
“One of the most memorable moments was when [Thompson’s] daughter Anna was diagnosed with Infantile Syndrome, and they said it was life-threatening and incurable,” Shoop said. “I can remember how life stopped when she was at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. We cried and prayed about it. I remember the joy when she was released from that hospital — no win is as special, nothing compares. Now, she is a vibrant teenager at Starkville High School.”
Polk — a head coach at three different programs, including 29 seasons at Mississippi State — began working with Shoop’s staff in the summer of 2008. He led MSU to six College World Series appearances, including the Bulldogs’ last trip in 2007. Coincidently, MSU played in the Tallahassee Regional that year.
“It is a neat thing all the way around,” Cohen said. “I have so much fondness for Coach Shoop and his staff, and obviously for Coach Ron Polk – one of the true legends of college baseball.”
When UAB takes on top-seeded Florida State on Friday, Shoop points out that two ABCA Hall of Fame inductees will be coaching in the game with Polk and FSU head coach Mike Martin, who will be leading the Seminoles. “You’ll have two of the legends on the field,” Shoop said. “That is a small group.”
The Seminoles, the No. 3 national seed, were the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season champions, while MSU won the Southeastern Conference tournament championship, Samford claimed the Big South title and UAB came out of nowhere as the seventh seed in the Conference USA tournament to capture the trophy.
Mississippi State and Samford will meet Samford at noon ET Friday, while Florida State and UAB will follow at 6 p.m. Both games will be broadcast on ESPN3.
The baseball should be fun and exciting for the fans in Tallahassee this weekend, but the coaches meeting on Thursday might be just as entertaining.