John Thompson, 37, is in his first head coaching job at Berkmar. Through his career he has coached at North Hall, Wesleyan, East Hall and Jefferson, in addition to two stints as a graduate assistant at Georgia under Jim Donnan and Mark Richt, a recruiting coordinator at Jacksonville State, a stay at Gainesville High School and most recently at Valdosta. He was also a walk-on at Georgia.
In this installment of "Getting to Know..." staff writer Ben Beitzel talks with the rookie head coach about the strength of Region 8-AAAAA, dating a Parkview graduate and outlining his career in third grade.
BB: You've been in coaching for quite a while, when did you know that's what you wanted to do?
JT: When I was in third grade we had to do a language arts paper on what we wanted to be in life. What we wanted to do when we grew up. In that paper I gave a timeline for what I wanted to do in my life and the last thing on that was to be a head football coach. The funny thing is that my mom still has that paper somewhere, she was a third grade teacher for 34 years.
In that paper it said I wanted to play for Coach (Bobby) Gruhn at Gainesville High School and it said that I wanted to go on and play at Georgia, then I wanted to be an assistant coach, coach college and go on and become a head football coach. Ironically, I've been blessed that what I wrote down in third grade I have been able to do and I did it in that order.
I knew at an early age what I wanted to do. Now that I am 37 years old and I am looking back on my career I think, wow where did that come from?
BB: Having been involved in recruiting from both ends, has that helped with dealing with people and with players on your teams?
JT: People who know me will tell you, I am straight forward and honest. I am not going to lie to you. They can tell you something and it can be shady and the kids being 17, 18 years old they don't understand what's being said. ... I can protect my kids. I can make sure they are not being told something and not reading between the lines. The kids, I have talked with the seniors several times, and they know I am going to protect them. The biggest thing we have to work on is getting our academics to where they need to be. It doesn't matter if you are blue chip, if your academics aren't good enough, there is nothing I can do for you.
BB: You spent four years coaching at Gainesville, your alma mater. Was it tough to leave?
JT: There were a handful of folks that were mad with me when I left. I was a hometown guy, quote, 'Living the dream.' My parents live in Gainesville. But I had an opportunity with Rick Tomberlin (at Valdosta). He had tried to hire me two different times. I felt like I needed to be around Rick. One, because of the type of man he is. Two, because I felt like I needed a real good experience to put the final nail in the board to help me get to where I am now. I felt like I needed one more experience. I didn't think I was ready.
BB: So were you totally prepared when you started this job? Were there any surprises you didn't see a head coach having to deal with?
JT: The only surprise, to me, and this is a compliment to everybody. I don't think people realize how good coaching staffs are in Gwinnett County. Now that I have been here I have been able to sit here and re-evaluate things in our region. You got guys like Coach (Cecil) Flowe at Parkview, Coach (Mark) Crews at Brookwood, Coach (Mickey) Conn at Grayson. If those guys weren't doing things the right way both on the field and off the field, those communities wouldn't be supporting them. They wouldn't be supporting the program. Those communities give you a small-town atmosphere.
The biggest surprise I have had is when I got the job I was told these kids wouldn't be willing to do the work, to do what needs to be done. Up to now, they have proved them wrong. When we did drills in April, I was told those kids wouldn't come to that stuff at 5:45 in the morning. We averaged over 85 players, every morning. I was told these kids wouldn't be willing to work out four days a week. I average over 100 players every night. Everything that has been told to me that these kids would not do, they have done. ... I was told that the Touchdown Club wasn't very supportive. That the parent support wasn't there. The last two parents' meetings I have had had over 75 parents. I am glad I am one of the types that I am not going to believe everything I hear.
BB: You've been a lot of places, how tough is this region to play in with Brookwood and Parkview and Grayson and the rest?
JT: Kirby Smart, the defensive coordinator at Alabama, told me, 'Daggumit, you went from the SEC South to the SEC North.' I said, 'Yeah, I did.' People don't realize how good a coaching staff there is in this region. People have to respect that. You hear people in Cobb County say they have the toughest AAAAA region. You hear Norcross and them say they have the toughest AAAAA region. You hear us say it. You hear Valdosta's region say it. But if you go back and look at it in the last 10 years the majority of the teams playing in the Final Four and finals came from Region 1 and Region 8. Not every year, but the majority of them have.
BB: So your move back up here was as much a personal move as a professional move?
JT: My parents sacrificed a lot for me and my sister for all of those years. Now it is time for me to do a little bit. The only thing I sacrificed was leaving the winningest program in the country. That was a sacrifice, but at the same time I have been as happy since I got here in March than I have been in a long time. Things worked out for the right reasons. It's great. I am 15 minutes from my parents, 20 minutes from work. It's awesome. With my parents up here and (my girlfriend) Kim. That played a big part in it too.
BB: How did you meet Kim?
JT: She and I met when I was at Gainesville. It is a bit of a joke, but in 2004-05 we played Parkview in a scrimmage. Well, Kim graduated from Parkview and she sat on Parkview's side and wore Parkview colors when we played them. About a month later we went our separate ways. When we got back together, I told her, 'It's your fault. When we played Parkview you sat on Parkview's side and wore Parkview's colors. That's why I kicked you out.' Just joking around. Last spring we decided to give it another try. I said, 'If we make it through the long-distance then it is meant to be.' Next thing you know it is a year and a half later and things are still going great.
BB: This time does she have enough Berkmar stuff for the Parkview game this season?
JT: She has plenty of red, white and blue. She picked it out.
BB: You've coached in both high school and college, is a college job something you would want to pursue?
JT: Not until I retire. They talked about moving retirement to 25 years, if they do, then I have about 10-11 years left. Then I might think about it. But, no. (My girlfriend) Kim and I are talking about getting married and we both want a family. I don't want to have a 1- or 2- or 3-year-old child and have to be in college coaching. (Georgia assistant) Mike Bobo and I are good friends and he's got several kids and it drives him nuts sometimes because he can't be at home as much. I enjoyed my time on the college level. I learned a lot. But I want to stay in high school.
BB: Since your mom was a educator, do you like the high school level because you can be involved in their academics?
JT: I enjoy being in the school setting. Valdosta and here are a little different. At Gainesville we only had about 1,100-1,200 students so in my fourth year there I about knew every one of them. At Valdosta I was there about two years, we only had 1,700 kids, but I maybe knew half of them at best. Here, we have over 3,200 kids, it might take a little while. But, I learned my players real quick. I do enjoy the classroom part of it.
BB: You've coached all over the state and different levels, could you ever see yourself leaving Georgia?
JT: I was offered twice to go down to Saint Augustine High School down in Florida, but I am a Georgia guy. I don't believe there is any better coaching in the country than Georgia. In high school football, there is no better coaching, by far.