Ron Polk never really, truly left. Just ask him.
Polk, the Mississippi State baseball coaching legend who just a couple of weeks ago came back to the school he’s most associated with as a special assistant to athletic director John Cohen, has always called Starkville home.
About once a week for the last 12 years, Polk hopped into his vehicle and trekked back and forth over the Mississippi-Alabama state line while he was a volunteer assistant coach at UAB. He maintained a house in Starkville over those dozen years and got his mail at the Mississippi State post office.
“I’ve driven from Starkville to Birmingham and back to Starkville well over 700 or 800 times in the last 12 years,” Polk told Cowbell Corner. “I’m still from Starkville. That’s what’s always been home.”
While Polk still claimed Starkville as his own, just a stone’s throw away from the post office where Polk kept getting his mail sat Dudy Noble Field. Or more appropriately to tell Polk’s story – Polk-Dement Stadium.
As Polk opened letters and conducted some of his business on campus for the last dozen years, in the minds of many, there was a figurative brick wall separating Polk from the athletic department. Here is a brief look at how that wall slowly came tumbling down.
Revisiting the past
To say Ron Polk was a little perturbed back in 2008 would be like calling a Mississippi summer slightly humid. Polk was….well, let’s just let him tell it like it was.
To put you back in the moment, Polk had just retired. He’d endorsed his assistant and former Bulldog player, Tommy Raffo, to be the next head coach of the Bulldogs. Greg Byrne, MSU’s athletic director at the time, opted instead to hire another former Bulldog in Cohen. Polk didn’t hide how he felt. He went on record with several media outlets. Here’s just a snippet of what he told Brad Locke of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (CLICK HERE FOR FULL COMMENTS):
“Unfortunately, our new athletic director slapped me in the face and punched me in the stomach. He also slapped Tommy Raffo in the face and punched him in the stomach after 15 years of loyalty to Mississippi State.
“I love John, he’s a former player, but he knew how I felt. And when he walks into his new office, there will only be a desk and chair. No papers on the players or anything. I don’t like what’s done, but I guess he really wanted this job very bad. Good luck.”
Polk also, infamously, wanted his name taken off the stadium. It was ugly, It was messy.
Here was the man that built Mississippi State baseball into a national brand. He was the heart of Bulldog baseball. And on his way out the door, it was as though that heart was indeed getting ripped right out of the program’s chest. Even 12 years later, though he admits everyone has reconciled to some degree, Polk doesn't back down from what he originally said. Polk sums his current feelings up this way:
"When the athletic department – athletic director (at the time) Greg Byrne, who's now at Alabama – decided to go against me and not pick Tommy Raffo, my longtime player, All-American and assistant coach...The kids wanted him. Recruits wanted him. Parents loved him. So I pretty much got very irritated. That was a long time ago. Everybody, so far, has kissed and made up. But I don't regret what I did then ever at all. Because somebody had to stand up. I thought after 31 years there in some capacity, I should've had the chance to pick my own successor."
Still, as bad as this all seemed, this was Ron Polk. He had to eventually, given time, come back and be a part of the school that he was almost synonymous with right? There was hope, sure. But there was never certainty.
“I don’t know if it was a foregone conclusion,” Cohen said last week. “I’ve said this many times and don’t mean to be redundant, but I feel privileged to be a part of the Mississippi State family. But the reality is…in my family, sometimes there can be some conflict at times. I was always hoping that we could be able to get Coach Polk back in the fold in the department.”
In the meantime
Everyone parted ways and found a new normal. Mississippi State baseball went on without Polk. Polk went on without the Bulldogs. Both thrived.
MSU, under Cohen, had a rough couple of seasons at the start, but returned to the NCAA Tournament in 2011. The Bulldogs won the Southeastern Conference Tournament in 2012. State played in the College World Series finals for the first time in school history in 2013. Before Cohen became athletic director in late 2016, he’d lead the Bulldog to two more NCAA Tournaments and the 2016 regular season SEC crown.
Meanwhile Polk had found his new niche at UAB, volunteer coaching under another of his former players, Brian Shoop.
All the while, MSU and Polk had little, if anything, to do with each other. Unless you want to count those weekly stops at the post office anyway.
Still, in Cohen’s mind, despite all that had happened when he was first hired as baseball coach, he says he personally didn’t hold much against Polk and always thought the fences between State and Polk could one day be mended.
“I don’t think it’s exactly what people made it out to be to begin with,” Cohen said of the early days of his coaching tenure at MSU. “I certainly can’t speak for Coach Polk, but there was never a time when I didn’t consider Coach Polk a mentor, a friend, a legend, a Mississippi State baseball and SEC legend – there was never a time I didn’t think of him in those terms. Again, I can’t speak on his behalf, but I felt all along there was going to be a real opportunity for him to come back to Mississippi State. Again, was there early conflict? Yes. Is that part of being in a family? Yes. It really is.”
Once Cohen moved from the dugout to the Bryan athletic administration building, that’s when it seems things really began to move back towards a place where Polk and Mississippi State would finally reunite.
By 2017, Cohen was out of his baseball uniform and in a suit and tie. Polk was still going strong at UAB. Cohen said it was around this time when he and Polk really began to discuss the what-ifs. The foundation of a return was starting to be laid.
“John has kept in touch with me for a long time and he always said when Brian Shoop retires and you want to come back home, we want to make sure we get you involved,” Polk recalled. “I said before that, I don’t want to cause any problems and I don’t want to even cost you anything if I come back and come home.”
Polk and Mississippi State got a teaser of a reunion last spring. That’s when Polk returned to be part of the inaugural class of the baseball ring of honor that also bears his name.
Then, just a little over a year later, Shoop did retire at UAB earlier this month. Polk was committed to staying by Shoop’s side while he was coaching, but when Shoop stepped down, the door was wide open for Polk to officially be a Bulldog again.
“He retired and John and I got together really quick,” Polk said. “It was really quick. It happened real fast. So we decided we were going to do it.”
Mississippi State officially announced Polk as new special assistant to the athletic director on May 13. It’ll be September though before Polk is fully back onboard with the Bulldogs as he cleans up some loose ends between now and then.
Even come September, it’ll be a stretch to say Polk is full time. He still wants to coach in the Cape Cod Baseball League each summer – something he’s done for years. He still wants to speak at banquets for high school and college programs around the Southeast. Then there’s the players over at UAB that he loves that Polk wants to go back and visit and watch practice and play on occasion.
“This thing is going to be hit or miss,” Polk said. “It’s not going to be anything elaborate, but John is going to have an office for me at the Bryan Building where the athletic staff is.”
As for exactly what Polk will be doing for the Bulldogs, that too seems to still be a bit of a work in progress. It’s an off-field role that will at the very least include being a resource to all current head coaches and Cohen.
“I look forward to having him and his guidance, not only for myself, but for our head coaches,” Cohen said. “You’ve got a guy that won 1,300 baseball games so he’s pretty knowledgeable about a variety of subjects. But when you’re talking about communicating with student athletes and the well-being of student athletes, I don’t know of a greater resource than Ron Polk.”
Polk will also likely be involved in some way with the baseball ring of honor, as well as Bulldog Club functions and other events.
As for what else the job will entail?
“Right now, it’s basically whatever John needs me to do,” Polk said.
Though unsaid, perhaps the biggest thing Polk will do is just be a Mississippi State Bulldog – the thing he’s spent a large chunk of his life being and now, finally, gets to be once more.
The happy ending
Most every good tale has a happy ending and it certainly appears the MSU and Polk saga that began once upon a time 12 years ago now has its feel-good conclusion.
Like peanut butter and jelly, macaroni and cheese or spaghetti and meatballs, there are some things in this life that just seem to go together and that includes Mississippi State and Ron Polk.
Starkville might’ve always been a place Polk kept coming back to – a place that even had a structure with a roof Polk could stay under on occasion. But Mississippi State is what brought Polk to Starkville in the first place all those many, many years ago.
The Diamond Dawgs were built on his back. That name of his that he once wanted off the stadium remains emblazoned on the structure that inarguably stands as one of the premier parks in the country.
And now after 12 long years, finally, Ron Polk is all Bulldog again. It’s perhaps all summed up in the simplest of comments. A comment that hints maybe even Polk thinks coming back to Starkville once a week wasn’t quite enough. Something was missing. But now…
“I’m happy to be back home,” Polk said.
As for the past, well it appears it'll stay right there.
"I have no regrets," Polk said. "12 years ago it happened. John Cohen and I are in good shape and we'll have a good working relationship when I start September 1."