Editor’s Note: Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson talked earlier this week with Mississippi State Director of Athletics John Cohen about a variety of issues facing the athletic department and several of its teams. In part one, Hudson examines the scheduling challenges Cohen faces with the football program, as well as other topics he deals with in dealing MSU first-year coach Joe Moorhead’s program. Part two will focus on the MSU baseball program.
STARKVILLE — The job of a Southeastern Conference athletic director got more difficult in April of 2014, when then SEC commissioner Mike Slive put a new football scheduling rule in place. He required each member school to play one non-conference game per season against a Power 5 conference opponent.
John Cohen has Mississippi State set in that regard through 2029.
This season begins a home-and-home series with Kansas State; home-and-home series against N.C. State, Arizona, Arizona State, Minnesota and Texas Tech, in that order, will take MSU through 2029. In an exclusive interview with The Dispatch, Cohen shed light on how those deals came together.
“In most sports, there’s a website. You click on a date and it says everybody that is looking for a game on the same date,” Cohen said. “It’s not rocket science, but you have to find dates that work out, it has to work out around the conference schedule.”
Cohen is referencing one of many databases that are available to college coaches and athletic administrators but not to the public. For example, such a database is about to exist for potential football transfers, as instituted by a new bylaw passed earlier this spring.
It helps a scheduling process that Cohen admits is more difficult than the one he navigated in his eight seasons as MSU’s baseball coach. Then he was pulling from a pool of Division I teams nearly 300 in number; in scheduling a Power 5 non-conference opponent, including Notre Dame, he has only 51 teams to choose from.
Cohen sees that as part of the reason that scheduling has gone so far in advance now, as MSU is far from alone in scheduling non-conference games as far as two decades in advance.
In finding the teams MSU ultimately scheduled, Cohen said the date was the first priority, more than the ultimate opponent. Cohen cited the difference in conference schedules both within the SEC and in the other power conferences as making it tough to match dates, but credited the SEC for being involved in scheduling process for its help.
In setting the schedule that it has to date, MSU bucked a certain trend in the sport: neutral site games.
According to fbschedules.com, there will be 10 one-time non-conference games played at neutral sites, continuing a trend of taking marquee non-conference matchups to NFL stadiums. That list for this season includes Washington vs. Auburn at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta or Ole Miss vs. Texas Tech at NRG Stadium in Houston and does not include yearly neutral site games such as Colorado vs. Colorado State or Army vs. Navy.
MSU being in one of those games — which it has not been since the 2013 season opener against Oklahoma State — was a topic for discussion.
“We don’t take anything off the table, but we want what’s best for our fan base and our football program,” Cohen said, “so when you combine those things it’s really hard to leave your home football season.
“Our fan base wants the most bang for their buck and we want to provide the best schedule we can for the season ticket holder.”
MSU actually already has one such game on the future schedule, a meeting with UL Lafayette in the Mercedez-Benz Superdome in New Orleans to open the 2019 season, coinciding with Kansas State’s return trip in that home-and-home series. Cohen said it is, “conceivable,” for MSU to add more like that one and further neutral site games as it looks to 2030 and beyond.
The process has many nuances and is far from easy, but Cohen makes sure to include yet another person in it: Joe Moorhead.
“We don’t do anything without running it by Joe. He definitely is involved for sure,” Cohen said.
For the games that were scheduled since Moorhead’s hiring, Cohen said Moorhead was made aware of the team in question and allowed to weigh the pros and cons as negotiations continued.
That’s not the only part of the future Moorhead will be involved in.
It is not uncommon for coaches in a new role to find improvements, facilities or otherwise, they want; often, the excitement around a new coach hire is something universities capitalize on in their booster base to make such improvements happen. Cohen said he and Moorhead have already discussed things Moorhead wants.
“He is heavily involved in the new locker room, the new recruiting room at Davis Wade Stadium,” Cohen said, referencing the $3.6 million renovation of the Davis Wade Stadium locker room and addition of a recruiting suite. “We’re making some changes to the (Leo W.) Seal (football) building. He’s heavily involved in that process.
“I think more of those, when he has one calendar year of using the facilities, I think he’ll have a more informed idea of what he needs for this football program.”
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson