Mississippi State director of athletics John Cohen managed to hire a new women’s basketball coach in the midst of a pandemic.

STARKVILLE As athletic directors go, Mississippi State’s John Cohen has been busier than most during the past month or so.

Not only does Cohen have to manage an athletic department on the smallest budget in the Southeastern Conference in the midst of a pandemic, he also had to hire a head coach for one of his most successful sports when women’s basketball coach Vic Schaefer abruptly took off to Texas last month.

“It’s just part of it, that’s what we sign up for,” Cohen said. “It’s been interesting for sure.”

Cohen tabbed Old Dominion’s Nikki McCray-Penson to lead the Bulldogs’ highly-successful women’s basketball program. He felt comfortable and confident about McCray-Penson’s pedigree as a standout player at Tennessee and the WNBA and her work as an assistant on Dawn Staley’s staff at South Carolina.

“I just felt like Nikki’s familiarity with the Southeastern Conference and her familiarity with Mississippi State, where Nikki grew up and what Nikki has accomplished not only in her playing career but in her professional coaching career – I rarely see resumes that look like Nikki McCray’s resume,” Cohen said.

“Having said that, the resume is not the only factor. There has to be an edge, a personality that allows you to be successful. We needed to be convinced of that and I’m firmly convinced that Nikki is the ultra-competitor and the person who has high expectations for every single one of her players.”


Cohen said he supports the NCAA’s decision to award eligibility back to spring student-athletes who had their seasons cut short by the coronavirus outbreak.

The NCAA ruled that all student-athletes involved in spring sports – not just seniors – will receive an extra year of eligibility added to their careers.

“I agree that giving back spring sport eligibility was the right thing to do,” Cohen said. “Is it expensive? Yes. Is it the right thing to do? Yes. Those two things don’t always come together. I know a lot of athletic departments around the country have had to make really difficult decisions.”

Cohen’s background as a college baseball player and coach has him hopeful that the NCAA will also address its antiquated scholarship stance with that sport. Baseball currently has 11.7 scholarships to scatter among 27 players on a 35-man roster.

“I would love to see us be able to address the baseball situation at a high level,” Cohen said. “Obviously, baseball is important in the Southeastern Conference and it’s important at Mississippi State.

‘I think it’s something we need to get right. The size of these rosters and the amount of scholarship aid that has been spent are factors and we need to address that.”


SEC schools beginning to sell alcohol at games on campus was a huge topic last May after the league lifted its longtime ban.

While 10 SEC schools started selling alcohol at sporting events during the 2019-20 calendar year, Mississippi State was not among them. It’s a stance that could continue whenever sports are given the all clear to resume in the fall.

“In complete transparency – at least on my end – there has been very little talk about alcohol just because there has been so many more other factors we’re having to deal with at this point,” Cohen said. “Is alcohol an important subject? Yes. The most important subject? Absolutely not. We’re going to address the things in order of importance and certainly I think alcohol is something that fits farther down the list.”

Twitter: @loganlowery

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