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Inside John Cohen's first year


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From a new coach to rival colors: Inside John Cohen's first year as Auburn athletic director

Updated: Oct. 31, 2023, 7:53 p.m.|Published: Oct. 31, 2023, 6:30 a.m.

16–20 minutes

He begins every day at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum at 6:30 a.m. in an Auburn T-shirt, shorts and his running shoes. He walks up to the concourse of the old basketball arena and begins to run laps, listening to a book or a podcast. He’ll check his emails and respond to texts before his real work day begins.

But by 7:30 on one cool October Wednesday morning, Auburn athletic director John Cohen finished his run and walked across the street to Neville Arena and into the Courtside Lounge. He joined a group of Auburn Hillel students and men’s basketball head coach Bruce Pearl as they discussed the onset of the terrorist group Hamas’ attack on Israel. Pearl is an outspoken Jew. Cohen is Jewish, too, but plays his beliefs much closer to his chest.

Pearl went around the room for each person to introduce themself. At his turn, Cohen said he is Auburn’s athletic director. He doesn’t have an immediate connection to Israel beyond his faith, but said he hoped to be a resource if the group of Jewish students ever needed to talk.

So he gave out his cell phone number. As he began reading off the digits, a student in the back of the room interrupted him.

“What’s your name again,” the student asked.

“John Cohen,” he responded. Then Cohen pointed to Pearl. “He doesn’t have that problem.”

It was a question so harmless, but quite indicative of the new life Cohen leads in his own home state in a different set of colors. On Halloween, Cohen reached the one-year anniversary of his announcement as Auburn’s new athletic director.

Cohen came here from Mississippi State — the school where he played baseball, coached baseball and served as the athletic director. At Mississippi State, baseball is king. So there’s a celebrity status that comes with both playing and coaching the sport there.

It’s a celebrity Cohen thought he’d lose when he came to Auburn. To be able to quietly slip into a table at Zazu’s Gastropub in Opelika, or go play golf when he feels like it. This John Cohen isn’t the same one who spent 14 years working in Starkville.

His one-year anniversary marks the end of a busy first 12 months that included a football coaching search the moment he walked in the door, a stadium renovation and dozens of minor early adjustments to Auburn’s athletics programs.

It also was a year of convincing his family to, possibly begrudgingly, wear orange and blue.

John Cohen speaks at an all-staff meeting. He reached his one-year anniversary as Auburn's athletic director on Tuesday.Jamie Holt/Auburn Tigers


There is a certain magic to growing up in an SEC college town, Cohen said. Though for him, that came in a household with crimson, white and houndstooth.

Cohen was born in 1966 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His dad was a law professor at the University of Alabama for nearly 40 years. An intelligent man, Cohen said, but highly illogical when it came to Alabama football. Maybe even conspiratorial.

But an SEC college town is quite insular. Tuscaloosa is no different. There’s a world outside of it, but it’s hard to see it until leaving. Cohen didn’t see that until he began playing college baseball at Birmingham-Southern College. And again when he transferred to Mississippi State.

Cohen went on to be a successful player at Mississippi State and ended up briefly in the Minnesota Twins’ minor league system. When baseball ended, he began to coach — something he long thought he’d never do growing up. He started as a graduate assistant and Missouri and winded his way through a few jobs before getting an offer to become the head coach at Mississippi State.

Mississippi State coach John Cohen, right talks with a game official during the 37 minute interruption in electrical power during the seventh inning of an NCAA Super Regional baseball tournament game in Starkville, Miss., Friday, June 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Jim Lytle)AP

He coached at Mississippi State for eight years and toward the end, began to help in the athletics administration departments in Starkville. He would go to football practices long before he was the athletic director at Mississippi State in an attempt to learn the functions of other sports.

But his own experience as a student-athlete gave Cohen a unique understanding of how a student-athlete or a coach may be impacted by an administrative decision.

“It’s a tough thing to deal with at times because that person is lying awake saying, ‘Hey, this program that we’re competing against has this and we don’t,’” Cohen said. “And they’re literally screaming at themselves in their head and then they get in front of an athletic director and they’re like, ‘We can’t win unless we have this!’”

As an athletic director, Cohen can provide those things now.

But after 14 years working in Starkville, Cohen said the timing was right for a new challenge. He wasn’t actively searching for a new job, but his attention was certainly open to one.

“I want this brand new opportunity one more time in my entire career,” Cohen said.

Then the search firm representing Auburn reached out to him.


Rhett Hobart’s Starkville office overlooked Cohen’s parking spot.

There, just as he does here, Cohen would come into the office still early in the morning after his run. But on this morning, just a few days before the news of his Auburn move broke, Cohen didn’t come inside.

Hobart, now Auburn’s Deputy AD of External Affairs, looked out his window and saw Cohen on the phone, walking in circles around the parking lot for hours. Hobart got his undergraduate degree from Mississippi State and immediately began working with then-baseball coach John Cohen and eventually athletic director John Cohen. He understood when things weren’t on schedule.

“I knew something was up,” Hobart said.

Cohen was quietly finalizing his move to Auburn. Auburn excited him because of what he called sporadic periods of success. Auburn has seen the highs of national championships and the lows of NCAA sanctions from various scandals.

Athletics Director John Cohen during the game between the Tuskegee Golden Tigers and the Auburn Tigers at Neville Arena in Auburn, AL on Thursday, Nov 3, 2022. Zach Bland/Auburn TigersZach Bland/Auburn Tigers

It wasn’t a perfect position, but a place Cohen felt he could mold. And all the while doing so at a school he called a giant in his own home state.

Yet while Cohen kept the interviews under wraps, his wife Nelle was confident they were leaving Starkville.

“This is the kind of job he’d be crazy not to take it,” Nelle Cohen said. “I have people saying, ‘But you’d have to move. You’re moving and that’s such a hassle and you have this great house that you built and you love it there and you have your friends.’ There’s a part of me that’s like, ‘Do you know us? Do you know my husband?’ He loves a challenge.”

Both from Tuscaloosa, it would be more difficult to convince their families to be okay with running the other athletic department in Alabama.

“I think they were nervous,” Nelle Cohen said of their families. “They weren’t intimidated by Mississippi State, so they could cheer for Mississippi State and still be Alabama fans. But when they heard Auburn they were like, ‘Okay now I’m scared, because I know how competitive John is.”

Cohen joked his dad, who passed away just over a decade ago, might not have taken this news well. It had to be some sort of conspiracy against the Crimson Tide.

The wife of a baseball coach, Nelle Cohen is used to moving. The Auburn move all came together quickly. John and Nelle Cohen spent their first six months in Auburn living in a downtown apartment just across the street from campus while they looked for a home.

Auburn Athletics Director John Cohen talks after being introduced during a press conference in Auburn, Ala., on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Todd Van Emst)AP

In their temporary place, Cohen had a busy first week as Auburn fired then-football head coach Bryan Harsin on the same day he was named the new athletic director. The first football game Auburn played under Cohen was against Mississippi State in Starkville.

And a few weeks later, Auburn played the Iron Bowl in Cohen’s hometown. John and Nelle Cohen told their families they could come to the game with them, but they couldn’t wear crimson.

John Cohen’s mom and sister wore orange. Cohen’s sister bought Auburn earrings. Nelle Cohen’s father, a staunch Alabama fan, even admitted he actually liked the town of Auburn.

Or, at least most of them got on board. Family can’t always break the bond of football in this state.

“You know I love you,” Nelle Cohen said her 87-year-old aunt Emily told her. “But I cannot cheer against Alabama.”


John Cohen’s first task will be one that will go on to define his tenure at Auburn. He was immediately thrust into a national coaching search.

Before his first month on the job was up, Cohen hired Hugh Freeze from Liberty. Freeze had previous SEC experience at Ole Miss, but a checkered run there that ended in scandal.

Cohen said he made over 100 phone calls — including to the police officers who work with Freeze — in hopes of assuring he made the right decision. That answer won’t be known for years.

The hire was a decision that kept him up at night. It was a choice he had to get right. But it wasn’t out of fear of hiring the wrong person, Cohen said. Instead, he was nervous instead for what he may have forgotten. He said there were many nights he’d roll over, turn the light back on and get out his notebook to remind him what he’d have to do in the morning.

There were some nights, Cohen said, where he’d be up working with other Auburn officials until 3 a.m. in the coaching search for Auburn’s highest exposure job.

Auburn coach Hugh Freeze and AD John Cohen pose with a jersey after the Auburn football coach Hugh Freeze intro presser on Tuesday, Nov. 29 2022 in Auburn, Ala. Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics/AU Athletics

Cohen said his philosophy can often drive those around him crazy because he keeps revisiting the same issues repeatedly from different angles as he learns more. Those around Cohen and Cohen himself all emphasize he has a love of learning — to a fault.

“I love beating it to death until I have a moment of clarity,” Cohen said of his decision process.

Part of Cohen’s philosophy is to create a staff of people with vastly different backgrounds. His background is coaching, so he hired others with law backgrounds, and others with marketing. That fits into Hobart’s job which, outside of the Freeze hire, has shown the most tangible results of Cohen’s first year.

Hobart has played a key role in the changes to fan experience at Jordan-Hare Stadium this season as well as finalizing plans for the $30 million Plainsman Park renovation plans.

A trademark of Cohen’s athletic departments is a push for more premium seating. This is a plan often met with criticism for hurting the average fan’s ability to go to games on a smaller budget.

Hobart said Cohen’s desire is to create a reason for people to come to the stadium for games still when sitting at home is cheaper and easier. His idea of doing that is to elevate seating and VIP experiences.

At Auburn, part of that drive came when football season tickets sold out in July, Hobart said. The program wasn’t anticipating that type of early excitement from fans to generate into such a massive ticket demand. Auburn sold the most season tickets, 63,500, in program history. Auburn went on to sell out all its home football games for the first time since 2015, Hobart said.

So Hobart said Auburn looked to find ways to expand seating capacity.

That led to the somewhat controversial on-field suites Auburn has in each corner of Jordan-Hare Stadium. Hobart said since the suites sold out so quickly, he expects them to continue, and possibly with a more permanent structure than this year’s model.

Hobart believes Auburn has helped fans by making concessions easier and faster. He installed self-service markets in the stadium that are now Auburn’s highest-grossing concession and have an average transaction time of 17 seconds, Hobart said.

But on seemingly any Auburn social media post about stadium changes or improvements, most of the comments are about getting an upgrade from the small, video-less north endzone scoreboard.

Cohen said he’s had meetings about a potential future replacement video board there.

General view of Jordan-Hare Stadium during the first half of an NCAA football game between Georgia and Auburn on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Stew Milne)AP

There are more facility changes Cohen is looking toward in year two.

There are still new light shows at the football game Hobart hasn’t been able to use yet. Beard-Eaves Coliseum may be his running spot, but Cohen knows it’s an antiquated and largely under-utilized space in need of an upgrade. Now whether that upgrade means knocking it down entirely or an interior change is still up for discussion.

He has discussed building a separate volleyball practice facility.

Cohen said his decision-making process comes to functionality and affordability. In this era, he also has to consider every detail if it will be a benefit for Auburn in recruiting.

There has to be a point to everything, Cohen said.

“Do kids make decisions based off of chandeliers,” Cohen said. “If they’re making decisions based off chandeliers, do you want that student-athlete in your program?”

Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze, left, talks with Auburn Athletic Director John Cohen, right, after the second half an NCAA college football game against Mississippi State, Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)AP


Cohen’s Auburn office used to be the football head coach’s office before the newly built Woltosz Football Performance Center opened. One window looks out over the old football practice field and the other over the South Donahue parking deck with the Jordan-Hare Stadium scoreboard looming just beyond.

There’s a Taylormade putter and a wedge he can finally feel comfortable using leaning on the wall beneath two hanging road maps of his home state. He didn’t feel like he could take a break in Starkville. There was a different type of pressure put upon him by the fanbase of a program where he’d been such a huge part of such an important team.

“I never felt like I could be seen on the golf course,” Cohen said. “I never felt like I could be seen enjoying fishing or enjoy myself because they’d be saying, ‘Holy cow you didn’t win a national championship last year, what are you doing playing golf?’ That’s how my mind works. Until last month, I was just telling someone this, I hadn’t hit a golf ball in 23 years.”

The John Cohen at Auburn is looser, still under the weight of a passionate fanbase but free from the ties the former Mississippi State baseball coach can’t pull back in Starkville.

“When you have gone from a coach to the athletic director, everybody recognizes you all the time,” Hobart said. “In a role like that, there is some celebrity status to it.”

Cohen thought he’d have anonymity here. At most schools, the athletic director could walk into Publix just like the rest of us. And in a way, Cohen was looking forward to that in Auburn.

But it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Nelle Cohen pays attention to when her husband is recognized and finds it fun. She’s seen it in Auburn and all the way out west in San Francisco before Auburn’s game against Cal.

“And right now, it’s going well,” Nelle Cohen said. “There’s a downside to that if you have a bad day or a bad week.”

But the John Cohen who appears freer here hasn’t lost any of the technical focus that characterizes his administration. Cohen’s law background from his father drives his attention to everything said publicly about Auburn. He’s at every football post-game press conference with a strewn look on his face analyzing each word Freeze says. At the SEC Basketball Tip-Off media event in Birmingham, he leaned in close to the ESPN set in the back of the ballroom during the Auburn team’s time on the air so he could hear it all live.

Cohen has his athletic director’s box at Jordan-Hare Stadium, but he’s often seen down on the field wearing his large sunhat. He craves to know everything in the moment.

Athletics Director John Cohen during the game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers at Rhoads Stadium in Tuscaloosa, AL on Sunday, Apr 23, 2023. Jamie Holt/Auburn TigersJamie Holt/Auburn Tigers

Maybe the only time he isn’t so keenly attentive comes on his morning runs. He used to run outside. But then when he got lost in a podcast or listening to an article, Cohen wouldn’t keep track of where he was nor how to get back.

And once in Starkville, he was almost hit by a student in their car racing to class.

So running in the coliseum is easier. There are no cars to worry about. No one to stop him for a photo. It’s a few moments in his day where he doesn’t have to focus on his plans.

He can’t get lost running in a circle.

Matt Cohen covers Auburn sports for AL.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @Matt_Cohen_ or email him at mcohen@al.com

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I said before I’ll say it again, Cohen’s the first real AD we’ve had in gosh, I don’t even know how long.  We should all be very excited to have him, and be even more excited about what’s to come …

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