Brad Bohannon’s 15-year journey to reaching his dream

Cody Estremera

Dressed in a black suit and an Alabama tie, Alabama’s 32nd head baseball coach faced the media for the first time. His opening statement on June 5, 2017 was simple.

“I have been waiting all week to get up here to say ‘Roll Tide, baby,’” Brad Bohannon said.

Bohannon, who is often called Bo, didn’t have a straightforward path toward achieving his dream as a head coach. 

The journey begins

Bo began his playing career in the SEC. As a freshman, he played middle infield at Vanderbilt, before transferring to Georgia Tech, where he played more of a backup role. He finished his college career at Berry College, where he was one of the more talented players on the team. 

After graduating with a finance degree from Berry College, he still had the desire to play. Since he wasn’t drafted, he played for the Dubois County Dragons, an independent team in Huntingburg, Indiana for a couple years. 

“It was an awesome experience,” Bohannon said. “In the middle of my second summer it really hit me that ‘hey it’s time to move on in life. I’m not a major league baseball player.’ So I really was at peace when I got done playing. I knew it was time to do something else.”

After playing for the Dragons, he went to Wake Forest to pursue a MBA. While at Wake Forest, he had his first coaching experience as a graduate coach. 

He earned his MBA while coaching for two years. He took a job at Intel in Portland, Oregon to help pay off his student loans, but the whole time he wanted to be around baseball. 

Right before he went out to start working for Intel, he decided to call the baseball office at Oregon State, just so he could keep around the sport. 

Gary Henderson, who was the the Beavers’ pitching coach at the time, answered the phone.

“I just told him my story, and over the course of a year living in Portland, I developed a relationship with Gary,” Bohannon said. 

Bohannon started working camps and scouting players for Henderson over the course of the year. Then, John Cohen took over as Kentucky’s head coach on June 26, 2003. His first job was to fill his coaching staff. The person he chose as his pitching coach was Henderson. 

First stop: Kentucky

With his relationship with Bohannon and the need for assistant coaches, Henderson suggested the 25-year-old Intel employee to Cohen.

“I just remember having a conversation with Gary, [and] Gary just [kept] saying how bright Brad was and how dedicated to the game he was,” Cohen said. 

Cohen and Bohannon talked a couple times about the available job, and Cohen saw Bohannon’s passion for baseball and the desire to be a coach. The big selling point for Cohen was just how smart he was.

“I thought ‘you can’t teach smart,’” Cohen said. “Someone is either smart or they’re not. They’re either intuitive or they’re not. There’s no question that Brad was that guy. You just knew he was going to be successful.”

Once one of the more dominant teams in the conference, Kentucky was struggling to right the ship. It simply wasn’t getting the talent it needed to compete at the high level it was accustomed to. 

With that need and the fact that Bohannon had been a successful volunteer coach for the last two years, Cohen decided to promote him to a full-time coach and the recruiting coordinator, because he knew Bohannon “wasn’t going to leave a stone unturned.”

“John, in a not so direct way, said ‘Hey, I’m really rolling the dice by hiring someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience, but I believe in you. If you don’t do a good job of putting this class together, then you’re going to go find a new job,’” Bohannon said. “He really challenged me, and I will forever be grateful to John for believing in me before I really believed in myself.”  

Cohen told him to live on the road and get the players the team needed to be successful, and that is exactly what Bohannon did.

The Wildcats made the jump from 29-27 in 2005 to 44-17 in 2006. 

Recruiting players to Kentucky was a challenge. Since the state just doesn’t have that many people, and the competition with schools in the surrounding area, Bohannon was forced to develop a network that spanned the entire country. 

“When I got there, the two things I thought were, we need to be the bridge for the kids in the midwest and the upper-midwest for southern baseball, and also I knew the power of the league was our biggest selling point,” Bohannon said. 

As recruiting coordinator, Bohannon flourished. Sixty-nine players that he signed played in the majors, including the 2012 draft where nine players were selected, which is tied for the second most in a single draft.  

Even though he had all that success, the best part of recruiting for Bohannon is just building relationships with people that he still has to this day.

“The wins are awesome, but if you take a step back and look back on what do you really value from the time you’ve been a coach, it’s the relationships with the kids and the families and the friendships you’ve developed over time,” he said. 

When he wasn’t on the road recruiting, he worked tirelessly helping the position players. He would throw batting practice whenever a player needed it, talked to players when they were slumping and was just generally supportive, earning him a reputation as a players’ coach.

“He’s a genuine guy,” former Kentucky player and current Mississippi State volunteer coach Mike Brown said. “I always say [that], and people always look at me like I’m crazy. He’s a normal guy. You can talk to him about things other than baseball, like music and life and whatever, and I think unfortunately in our industry that’s not necessarily a given. I think the guys that can have a normal conversation and treat people the way they want to be treated separate themselves from other coaches.”

Second stop: Auburn

Bohannon spent 12 years at Kentucky, but at the end of the 2015 season, he decided it was time for a new challenge. That was when first-year head coach Butch Thompson decided to reach out and hire the 2015 National Assistant Coach of the Year away from Kentucky. 

His pitch was simple. He would do everything in his power to help Bohannon become a head coach at some point. 

“There comes a time in your life when you want a new challenge,” Bohannon said. “I can’t explain it, but the timing was right.”

In their first year at Auburn, Thompson and Bohannon went 23-33 and just 8-22 in the SEC, missing the SEC tournament.

The following year was one of  the best seasons Auburn had in the past two decades. The Tigers went 37-26 and 16-14 in the SEC. At one point they were ranked as high as fourth in the country. 

The quick turnaround was manufactured by recruiting a decent number of Junior College league players. Ten of the 19 players in the class had college experience. That class, which Thomson called “We got to get better,” was the No. 5 ranked class by Baseball America. 

Bohannon wasn’t just a yes man in his two years at Auburn. He made sure to tell Thompson what was going through his head.

“I really thought that helped us moving quick and at the pace the SEC requires,” Thompson said. “I really leaned on him. He always gave great advice, I thought that helped us work together really great.”

The two led the Tigers to a NCAA Regional. The Tigers won their first two games before losing to Florida State on back-to-back days. 

For Bohannon, those back-to-back days recognized that 15-year dream of being a head coach. After Auburn’s 8-7 loss in 10 innings, he had to leave immediately, arriving in Tuscaloosa, Alabama about 2 a.m. The press conference was at 10 a.m. He met with several people from the community and the team, then returned to Tallahassee, Florida, pulling up to Dick Howser Stadium at the same time as the team bus.

“We were all one team, and Brad was one huge piece of that 2017 team, just like every other coach, just like every other player,” Thompson said. “I thought he worked hard to do everything he could to finish that season with that ball club. So I respect that. I think our players wanted him there. I wanted him there. As the head coach, I thought that our team was best with him there. You know that was tough. That was a tough call. All I care about is our players and coaches at the time, and I appreciate Brad going through that.”

The Present  

Alabama is 42 games through its season, and has made some huge strides. The team surpassed its entire win total from last season, and is tied in SEC wins. At the same time, the team hasn’t gotten over a couple humps, including being swept by Auburn for the first time since 2001.

The biggest challenge that he has had to face as a first-time head coach, is the fact he doesn’t receive much feedback besides the final box score.

“When you’re an assistant coach, your head coach tells you ‘good job’ or ‘bad job,’” Bohannon said. “When you’re a head coach, nobody ever gives you any feedback, so it’s hard to truly know if you are doing the right things, except having confidence in yourself and confidence in the people around you.”

With 14 games left in the season, it is going to be tough for Alabama to make the SEC tournament. Currently, it is 5-13 in the SEC, which is last in the SEC. The last two teams in the conference are left out of the tournament, and for the second straight season, Alabama is on the outside looking in.

Even with that shortcoming, February 16 will always be a special day for Bohannon. Alabama defeated Valparaiso 16-2 for his first-ever win as a head coach.

“I hope it’s not my best day,” Bohannon said. “I hope we accomplish a lot more than just winning the first game. It was fun, it really was. I don’t mean to downplay it. It was awesome and a dream come true. But I want to dogpile at the Joe.”