OMAHA, Neb. – There was a short time between the last out that was recorded in Chapel Hill, N.C. and the Auburn Tigers loading the bus to go home that Butch Thompson was living in the moment.
His fourth Tiger team had just punched its ticket to Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series for the first time in over 20 years. It was a lifelong dream of Thompson’s to be a head coach in the Southeastern Conference and to lead his team to the biggest stage and he had checked that off the list.
But then Thompson was brought back to the reality of what was going to await him in game one.
“Of course, out of 297 schools, of course we're playing Mississippi State,” Of course, that's who we're playing.”
What the Bulldogs put on the field on Sunday afternoon at 6:30 p.m. will have just as much of a Thompson fingerprint on it than what the Tigers will have. Thompson recruited a large portion of the roster when he spent seven years as MSU’s pitching coach under John Cohen.
There’s a direct correlation in MSU’s pitching success and drafted players moving up the ranks in Major League baseball and Thompson’s stint. He coached players like Chris Stratton, Brandon Woodruff, Chad Girodo, Jacob Lindgren, Jonathan Holder and Dakota Hudson.
There’s also MSU’s Sunday starter and SEC Pitcher of the Year who Thompson has to figure out how to beat on Sunday. Thompson can’t help but get romantic when he talks about his time spent in Starkville, the investment made in him and the players that have crossed his path.
It’s why when he’s seen the 51 wins that Chris Lemonis has piled up in year one, he couldn’t be happier with the decision that Cohen made in that hiring process.
“I was thankful and proud that Chris was able to get this job because, one, I knew he'd do a great job, and I thought he would be genuine with it, and I thought he would lead the program in a great way because I care what happens,” Thompson said. “I do cherish every relationship that I have on that side, including John Cohen, who's been a mentor for me and has developed me and has invested in me.”
The coach mentioned people like longtime play-by-play radio announcer Jim Ellis, bus driver Everett Kennard and former sports information director Joe Dier after the latter rushed the coach to the emergency room one evening as he dealt with kidney stones.
But those people and the players he’s impacted over the years feel just as fondly as he does about them. Lemonis got to see that firsthand on Thursday when the teams arrived in Omaha and the players saw Thompson in the parking lot. Most of them, whether they played for the coach or not, got off the bus and greeted Thompson with a hug.
“My whole team, even the ballplayers, there's a tremendous amount of respect, and I think (Thompson) recruited a lot of them,” Lemonis said. “They had to get off the bus and make a point to go see coach Butch, and I just thought it was a special piece in this game of the relationship side.”
Thompson could have very easily been the coach wearing maroon and white and coaching in the Bulldog dugout on Sunday after either of the last two coaching changes at MSU. Instead, he’s building his own program in the Plains and enjoying it all.
There’s no matter where he coaches, Thompson takes MSU and Starkville with him. Sunday will be hard, but it’s also somewhat destiny for Thompson and MSU to meet in his biggest moment as a head coach.
“I wouldn't be (a head coach) if it weren’t for Mississippi State,” Thompson said. “This thing really turns into people at the end of the day. It's really a whole collection of people that you care about.
“I have to say there's so many deep relationships that are all rooting against us Sunday, but I hear from Mississippi State folks when we have success, because it's sincere relationships.”