MITCH THOMPSON has led McLennan Community College to new heights, with four consecutive 40-win seasons and its first JUCO World Series appearance in 32 years in 2015, when he was also named Waco Tribune-Herald Sportsman of the Year. Thompson has amassed an overall record of 214-87 since taking over the program prior to the 2014 season.
Thompson’s previous experience includes 22 years in the Southeastern and Big 12 Conferences (Mississippi State, Auburn, Baylor) and as a professional scout for the Kansas City Royals. His teams made College World Series appearances in 1990 (Mississippi State), 1994 (Auburn) and 2005 (Baylor), and he was named the 2006 Baseball America/ABCA National Assistant Coach of the Year in 2006.
At Baylor, Thompson recruited and signed several players who eventually played in the major leagues, including Kip Wells, Jason Jennings, David Murphy, Kelly Shoppach, Shawn Tolleson, Logan Verrett and Max Muncy.
What’s your recruiting pitch to players who are considering Junior College?
Junior College baseball is a really good level of play, there’s really a lot of talented kids. Obviously there are some reasons kids choose the JC level- sometimes it’s a money issue or a grades issue, but many times it’s about being overlooked by DI schools or pro scouts.
I don’t pull any punches. I tell them who I am and what I want. We think that our recruits are a good fit, but they know themselves better than we do, so we really urge the kids that if they don’t think it’s a fit, please don’t come here. We’ve been fortunate to recruit some really good players who are great people as well. If you hold kids to a high standard, they’ll give you what you want.
How many players do you bring in in the Fall?
There are a lot of places that bring in a ton of guys and make a lot of cuts, I just don’t think that’s the way to go about it when it comes down to how you treat people. I recruit our team: we start out with 35-38 players and we end up with about that many when it’s all said and done. I’ve got 35 lockers in the locker room and I’m used to that number from the DI limitations.
We go to a couple major events across the country- Atlanta, and Jupiter in the Fall, but for the most part, we’re staying in the state of Texas. We’re blessed to have a talent pool here that can support championship-level baseball. We have a good place and good facilities and we’re starting to build that track record, so we’re able to recruit some high-level players.
What, specifically, are you looking for when it comes to recruiting particular positions?
On the mound you want to see athleticism, an arm that works with some life on the ball, the ability to spin breaking ball. You also want to see a guy who has a toughness and some fire in his belly. Position-wise, I like to see baseball players, guys that jump off the field at you. They hustle down the line, they stretch a single into a double, and they play with their hair on fire regardless of what the score is. You also want to look for communicators, someone who can pick up their teammates.
Programs nowadays are having to pull the trigger on kids way too soon, without having seen them enough. To learn about makeup, you have to see a kid a lot. You have to watch them right of the car when they get to the park. You’ve got to see how they treat mom and dad after the game. You can’t get that in a showcase event or after seeing a kid play one game.
How did your experience as an assistant prepare you to be a head coach?
As an assistant, you feel like you’re responsible for everything but you’re not. Well, you are responsible for everything as a head coach. At the end of the day the head guy has to make the decisions when it comes to keeping/cutting players, making disciplinary decisions, things like that.
How do you define culture, and how do you influence it as a head coach?
Culture is huge. What do you do all day, every day and how do you do it? Demand excellence, don’t settle for average. Wherever you are, whether someone is watching or not- be the best student, player, son, weightlifter you can be. Selflessness, passion and discipline are all factors in that.
It’s all about the relationships. Good kids want to be around good kids. Once you get the culture of your program set, birds of a feather flock together. One of the things I tell our kids in the recruiting process is that if they don’t want to play in the big leagues, we don’t want you in our program. I demand a lot of our players, so if they don’t have that passion, that drive, it’s going to be really hard on them. Now, will they all play in the big leagues? Absolutely not. But if they dedicate themselves to that cause and give all they can, at the end of the day they’ll have no regrets. They’ll have learned a life lesson of just how much they can achieve if they outwork people, put their mind to something and be dedicated and disciplined. That’s what coaches do at the end of the day- teach life lessons through our passion.
When I first got here we were talking about field work one day and I heard “freshman, that’s your job!” and I said no, no, no- we’re all in this together, this is about the whole team. The goal is to get a team that is all pulling in the same direction. There’s a part of every kid that’s trying to get to the next place or the next level, especially in Junior College. But the only way that works is if you have a truly selfless team that is bought in- everyone is going to benefit if we all take care of each other.