By Michael Haag | Sports Editor
As Baylor celebrates its annual Homecoming this weekend, all eyes will be on the timeless parade Saturday morning or the football game a few hours later. What some may not know is that a certain someone is in the midst of a homecoming of his own.
Neither Baylor Ballpark or Waco is a mystery maze for Thompson, who spent 18 years as an assistant coach with the green and gold. Thompson then became the head coach at McLennan Community College, where he found lots of success at the junior college level.
Nine years later, Thompson was awarded the job as Baylor’s skipper and it was time for him to return home. Although just down the road, Thompson found his happy place, which lies on the banks of the Brazos River at Baylor Ballpark.
“Every day I walk into the ballpark, I’ve got an immediate smile on my face,” Thompson said. “It’s been unbelievable. I mean, the whole experience to come back.”
Since taking the job and now still settling in, the longtime Bear said he’s received loads of support from his old players. Thompson said in recent weeks he once had six to eight former players stop by to give him hugs and check in.
Those tight bonds have helped give Thompson quite the reputation in the Waco area. He set the bar with his arrival to the green and gold in 1995, yet it’s only increased and trickled down into younger generations that are now playing for him.
“Being from Waco and around the Waco area, Coach Thompson’s reputation precedes itself,” junior infielder Cole Posey said. “Phenomenal man, great coach, knows how to win, but is really invested in the people. And so, I feel like it’s kind of the perfect storm we have going on so far.”
Sophomore catcher Cortlan Castle remembers watching games at the ballpark growing up, during Thompson’s first stint with Baylor. Castle said as he got older, he then transitioned to MCC games once Thompson moved there.
Thompson’s influence, paired with a family connection between him and Castle, brought another unique bond that lasts to this day.
“His daughter is in my sister’s grade, so we’ve kind of known that family [and] seen him around Waco for a long time,” Castle said. “Now that our relationship has changed from someone that I kind of know to now someone that’s my head coach, it’s been really cool to have that.”
It hasn’t been long since Thompson started fall practice with his group, but one of his first points of emphasis was to build team camaraderie. The way he did this is by making team members learn each other’s name, hometown and previous school – whether JUCO, Division 1 or high school.
Thompson did this and told the squad he would quiz them over it at some point later in the year. Fifth-year senior right-handed pitcher Blake Helton said the assessment has yet to happen, but that he’s prepared and ready if the day came where they would be tested. He said this is a helpful tactic to gain chemistry with so many new faces. As of right now, out of everyone that is practicing on the diamond, a little under half of them are returners from last season.
“So, really studying kind of everybody’s background helps getting to know everyone really quickly and what everybody’s about,” Helton said. “That has played a huge role in getting to know everyone and we’re much closer for it.”
So much of Thompson’s likability is already rubbing off on his players just a week into fall practice. This is the case for Castle, who said Thompson looks at his athletes as more than just objects.
Castle compared it to what we’ve seen head football coach Dave Aranda speak about before: a person over player mentality.
“He just really pushes culture and always pushes person over player which is huge for all of us,” Castle said. “Because if you can believe in us off the field, then it’s easy for us to believe in each other on the field. So, person over player is the biggest thing that I really, really enjoy about him.”
The honeymoon phase is still looming over Baylor Ballpark, as the homecoming for Thompson is a feel-good story in itself, at least for right now. He said that although it’s been such a great time being back home, he understands how quickly things can turn when the season begins and games start to matter.
“So, the homecoming has been great,” Thompson said. “And it’ll keep being great until that first loss and then it’ll just be wins and losses, right? So, we’re looking forward to getting that part of it started as well.”