Sports

Byrne's hire of Cohen a natural

Starting up the sports administration ladder, a young Mitch Barnhart received an early leg up from Bill Byrne, then athletics director at Oregon, who hired young Mr. Barnhart to the UO staff.

So when Barnhart won his first athletics director job at Oregon State, he hired Byrne's son, Greg, to be a fund-raiser, then brought young Greg with him east to Kentucky when Barnhart landed that SEC job.

All those ties didn't stop Barnhart from separating Bill Byrne, now AD at Texas A&M, from his basketball coach Billy Gillispie when it came time for Barnhart to hire Tubby Smith's successor.

And when Greg Byrne landed the top spot at Mississippi State, after a couple of years as an assistant AD in Starkville, and was immediately charged with hiring a replacement for legendary baseball coach Ron Polk, that didn't stop the 36-year-old Byrne from going right back to Lexington to lure John Cohen out of Barnhart's grasp.

”It really is a small world isn't it?“ Greg Byrne said Wednesday.

A crazy one, too, though in actuality this set of circumstances had more to do with the personal aspirations of the coaches involved than orchestrations by ADs.

In hopes of winning an NCAA basketball title, Billy Gillispie traded his grid-crazed Texas address for the basketball-infatuated Bluegrass. In hopes of winning a College World Series, Cohen relinquished the budding program he had built at UK for the cowbells back home at his alma mater.

”It was a no-brainer,“ Cohen said at his MSU hiring last weekend, and the ex-UK coach meant no disrespect toward his previous employer.

Just as it was a no-brainer, despite the previous relationship with Barnhart, for Byrne to pursue one of the hottest coaches in college baseball.

”There was some angst involved,“ Byrne said. ”Several times, I was asking myself, "Why couldn't John be anywhere but Kentucky?'“

In the end, though, Byrne knew he had to do what was right for Mississippi State, which was to try to hire the best coach out there, especially when that coach possessed such an intimate knowledge of the Bulldogs program.

So the morning after Kentucky was eliminated by Arizona in the NCAA Tournament Sunday night, Byrne phoned Barnhart to ask permission to speak with Cohen about the job. Barnhart agreed, but asked if Byrne would wait until Tuesday so that Mitch could have a chance to speak to Cohen first. Byrne agreed.

Byrne and Cohen talked Tuesday and Wednesday. The two families had dinner on Thursday. That night Byrne offered Cohen the job.

”I didn't know we had him until Friday morning,“ Byrne said. ”Believe me, Mitch did everything he could to try and keep John Cohen.“

Indeed, Barnhart offered Cohen a generous 10-year, $6 million contract. And Cohen seriously considered it – well, not so much the dollars, but the prospect of remaining at a program he the had lifted to a higher level.

”I think John felt a sense of ownership about the Kentucky program that was hard to leave,“ Byrne said. ”But I think it was fortunate for us that he had played at Mississippi State and knew the great passion that is here for baseball.“

Passion run amok, at least in one sense. No sooner had the hiring been announced than Polk, infuriated that assistant Tommy Raffo had been rejected for the job, issued a string of crybaby threats. Polk said he wanted his name removed from the MSU baseball stadium. He said he was removing MSU from his will.

The State faithful responded by rewarding Cohen and Byrne with a standing ovation at the introductory press conference.

”Our fans have been great,“ said Byrne, who declined to address Polk's comments.

But he did say one other thing.

”I'm glad it's done.“

Reach John Clay at 859-231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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