Native Son: Thompson back for more of the Natural State
Published: Thursday, April 26, 2012
Updated: Thursday, April 26, 2012 14:04
While John Thompson may be a new face to the Arkansas State football program, the 56-year-old is no stranger to the world of college football.
Thompson was appointed by head coach Gus Malzahn on Feb. 25 after the abrupt departure of Keith Patterson for West Virginia.
“When you say timing is everything, that’s right. The timing was perfect, that’s one. Two, I think Gus Malzahn is going to do something big,” Thompson said.
“Being at Arkansas State and being in Arkansas, the moon and the sun really lined up right.”
A native of the natural state, Arkansas State’s newest defensive coordinator has been a figure in the sport since his days of playing the game at his alma mater, Central Arkansas, where Thompson played for two seasons at defensive back.
“The only reason I played college ball was because I wanted to be a coach. I wasn’t good in college at all, I was a walk on,” Thompson recounted.
Born in El Paso, Texas, Thompson was raised in Wilson and McCrory before attending high school in Forrest City where his father coached football.
“My dad was a coach until I was a sophomore in high school,” Thompson said. “I wanted to coach because I saw the impact he had. I saw what I thought was a great life, but really wasn’t worth it. He was gone all the time. I saw how he treated players and treated people and I saw that being a fun life.”
That impression at a young age put Thompson on a road that has led him to coach at 13 different universities, including Arkansas State, over the course of the last 30 years.
Thompson has coached his way through campuses at Arkansas, South Carolina under the leadership of the “Ole Ball Coach” Steve Spurrier, and one season experiencing the “aura of Florida,” in 2002.
“I wish I had stopped and smelled the roses at some of those places more than I did instead of just focusing in on trying to win and getting close to the players. I’m glad we did that, but also I guess I should have stepped back and said ‘this is pretty cool,” Thompson said.
With the move from his previous position at Georgia State, Thompson makes his third foray into the Arkansas college scene.
“There’s always been something unique about Arkansas. There’s no major cities, at least nothing that compares to Atlanta, or something like that. There’s just a connection with everybody no matter where you’ve lived,” Thompson observed.
That is a connection Thompson has carried with him from his time as a player at UCA, to his two seasons at the University of Arkansas, where he coached the second best pass defense in the SEC and one year as the athletic director of UCA while it made the transition to the Division 1 level in 2006.
“At UCA, I was learning to be businessman. It was on-the-job training,” Thompson said. “Being at my alma mater meant a lot to me. I wanted to do that the right way. So much of that was trying to make sure people understood that it was a huge step forward, and they’re doing very well.”
Thompson enjoyed his tenure at UCA, but lamented not being able to have a close relationship with the coaches and players.
However, possibly Thompson’s biggest challenge came at his last stop of four years at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
There he was a key figure in the creation of GSU’s football program from the ground up.
The school will join the Sun Belt conference beginning next season.
“At Georgia State, being with Bill Curry was really something special,” Thompson remembered. “We did not have a desk, we did not have a football. I think our first meeting, we put our notebooks in our laps, we did that for a little while.”
Once the GSU staff signed its first recruiting class, the team did nothing but practice for a year before competing for the first time in the 2010 season.
“It was pretty unique, it was cool to be able to do that. Now that program is off and running. That program is really going to explode I think, with the media market and the amount of talent that is around there,” Thompson said.
Now Thompson takes the reigns of a defense that finished 24th in the nation in 2011, with first year head coach Gus Malzahn at helm, the second defensive coordinator in a short period of time.
Ultimately, Thompson’s decision to make the move to Jonesboro came down to family.
“It was a good time for our family. [My wife], Charleen and I have an 8th grader. I felt like it was a good time to get them here. We just felt very positive about it.”
With 30 years of coaching under his belt, the Forrest City native still feels like he has a lot to bring to the table.
“My dad use to say, ‘you don’t get smarter, my back has just been against a wall that many more times’,” Thompson recalled. “My back’s been against a wall a lot in coaching, hopefully I can use that wisdom here at Arkansas State better than ever.”