STARKVILLE — Mississippi State University has two baseball coaches who know there’s a man in Birmingham they can and will call if they’re confused, need advice, or want to talk about the sport they love.
MSU coach John Cohen and pitching coach Butch Thompson consider University of Alabama at Birmingham coach Brian Shoop one of the best minds in all of college baseball.
The only problem is MSU and UAB could be face each other this weekend in the NCAA tournament’s Tallahassee Regional.
MSU and Samford University will meet at 11 a.m. Friday on the campus of Florida State University to open the regional, while No. 3 national seed FSU and UAB will follow at 5 p.m.
“There are many, many times when Butch and I will be sitting in the office together, and I will say, ‘How would Shoopy handle this?’ or ‘What would Shoop think about this?’ ” Cohen said. “We have that much respect for him.”
Shoop worked as an assistant coach for Ron Polk at MSU from 1983-89. He also recruited and coached Cohen in Starkville. After leaving MSU, Shoop recruited Thompson as a player and later hired him as a pitching coach.
“I think coach Shoop is one of the great coaches in America, so you know UAB will be well prepared and ready to go,” Cohen said.
Interim Director of Athletics Richard Margison appointed Shoop as UAB’s coach June 12, 2006.
“When we called other head coaches to get input on prospective candidates, almost every person said, ‘You’ve got the best person right in Birmingham in Brian Shoop,'” Margison said when Shoop was hired. “He graduates players, he coaches a very competitive, winning program, and he’s involved in the community.”
Shoop is 139-146 in six seasons with the Blazers. The last time Shoop coached against MSU, the Blazers defeated the Bulldogs 6-4 on April 13 in the completion of a game that was suspended by rain.
Thompson played for and coached with Shoop at Birmingham Southern College. They led BSC to wins against the University of Alabama, Auburn University and UAB in non-conference mid-week games en route to the 2001 NAIA national championship.
“I was the little fella (and) I cut the grass and did all the laundry at that time,” Thompson said.
Shoop also has helped to develop some of the game’s top NCAA Division I coaches: Matt Bragga (Tennessee Tech University coach), Bob Keller (University of South Alabama assistant coach), Daron Schoenrock (University of Memphis coach), and Thompson.
“(Schoenrock) was our pitching coach at Birmingham Southern and in my wedding, so there’s all connections there with coach Shoop,” Thompson said.
Thompson coached on Shoop’s staff at BSC for seven years, and has been at MSU for four years as Cohen’s pitching coach. On Monday, he called Shoop “my mentor” and a “father figure” in the coaching business.
“He built everything I’ve ever thought (and) is the most respected man I’ve ever been with in baseball,” Thompson said. “He created the opportunity for me to go to the University of Georgia and University of Auburn as an assistant coach.”
In a tribute to his friend and mentor, Thompson wears the No. 30 Shoop wore as a player with the Bulldogs.
“When he had his twin children, I was the one that was called to the house to baby sit the other kids at 3 a.m.,” Thompson said. “He’s much more like a dad to me than a former boss in my life.”
Shoop first met Cohen when he was an assistant coach at MSU. He coached Cohen on a summer league team — the Bryan Packers, sponsored by Bryan Foods.
After Cohen, an outfielder, transferred to MSU, Shoop served as his coach.
“I think he’s one of the brightest and unheralded coaches in America,” Cohen said. “We have the ultimate respect for coach Polk, too. There’s not a whole lot he hasn’t experienced in his coaching career.”
Polk is a volunteer assistant coach at UAB. He was 1,139-590 in 28 seasons at MSU and announced his retirement in March 2008. When he stepped down, he endorsed his assistant, Tommy Raffo, to succeed him. When incoming MSU Director of Athletics Greg Byrne made Cohen his first hire, Polk lashed out. He called the then 36-year-old Byrne unqualified and said he would take his name off the Dudy Noble Stadium and the athletic department out of his will.
“Now he’s got me on the war path and all I can do is hurt him,” Polk said of Byrne in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “I’m going to do everything I can to make his life miserable.”
Polk said in multiple interviews he asked Cohen not to take Byrne’s offer four years ago so Raffo, Cohen’s former teammate at MSU from 1987-90, could get a shot at his first head coaching job. He then threatened to work to dismantle key components of a program he helped build into one of the nation’s best.
Polk recruited senior captains Brent Brownlee and Caleb Reed to MSU.
“(Polk) is why I came to Mississippi State,” said Reed, a preseason All-American. “I signed with (Polk). It’s always good to see him, but I’m glad to be here with coach (John) Cohen and everything he’s done for me.”
Despite their friendships, no advice or phone calls between the MSU and UAB staffs will be made until the Tallahassee Regional is completed.
“We’ll try to kill each other the minute we play in this thing if and when that would come,” Thompson said. “Afterward we’ll hug each other and go back to being friends.”