Sidelines with John Clay

UK-U of L connection influences Mississippi State baseball hire

Former Mississippi State head coach Gary Henderson talks to his team on the mound on March 14, 2018, at MGM Park in Biloxi.
Former Mississippi State head coach Gary Henderson talks to his team on the mound on March 14, 2018, at MGM Park in Biloxi. amccoy@sunherald.com file

After Mississippi State reached the College World Series under interim coach Gary Henderson, many were surprised Athletic Director John Cohen didn’t make the former Kentucky coach the Bulldogs’ head coach.

Instead, Cohen hired former Indiana coach Chris Lemonis to take over the Bulldogs’ baseball program.

According to Tyler Cleveland of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, the reason behind Lemonis’ hire goes back to when Cohen was the head coach at Kentucky (2004-08) and Lemonis was an assistant under Dan McDonnell at Louisville (2007-14).

“Cohen said he remembered wondering how Louisville was landing first- and second-round talent with little baseball tradition and inferior facilities,” reports Cleveland. “He later found out Lemonis was responsible, sought him out and started a relationship that, more than a decade later, culminated in Tuesday's (hiring).”

Cohen first tried to hire McDonnell himself, but the Louisville coach turned down MSU’s offer. McDonnell has taken the Cardinals to the College World Series four times — 2007, 2013, 2014 and 2017.

An assistant at The Citadel from 1995 through 2006, Lemonis joined McDonnell in 2007. He took over Indiana in 2015 after Tracy Smith left for Arizona State. The former head coach at Miami (Ohio), Smith had taken the Hoosiers to Omaha in 2013.

Lemonis went 141-91-2 as the head coach in Bloomington, taking IU to the NCAA Tournament three of his four seasons, including last year at UK. But it was his time at Louisville, recruiting against UK, that got Cohen’s attention.

"He was the architect of something remarkable at Louisville," said Cohen, according to the Clarion-Ledger. "As to what he did at the Citadel, then at Louisville, it was impressive. And I believe he was well on his way to getting that Indiana team back into contention for Omaha."

So what will happen to Henderson, who went 258-199 in eight seasons at Kentucky, taking the Cats to a pair of NCAA Tournaments?

Hugh Kellenberger of the Clarion-Ledger wrote Monday that he was surprised Cohen passed on his former assistant, who took over a messy situation and got the Bulldogs to Omaha.

“. . . an explanation may simply come down to this: while Henderson deserved the job, the position of AD requires you to look beyond the here and now and Lemonis was deemed to be a better fit for the next 10 years,” wrote Kellenberger.

Cohen told Cleveland that “Gary Henderson is not going to be kicked to the curb. He’s going to be a part of Mississippi State as long as he chooses to be.”

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