My pocket started to buzz this morning as I was following the two year old around the house, making sure he didn’t succeed in his only job, which is to look for death. I took my phone out of my pocket and read the message. It was from work, “boss wants you in here now”; there were big “happenings” in the local sports world apparently.
What could it be I wondered, is it another terrorist attack? Have the terrorists decided the Reds have won three in a row and this will not stand? So I inquired about the news, then I read the response; Mingo Central’s basketball coach just resigned! So I said my goodbyes and “hit the beat”, as we like to say in the newspaper business.
Arriving at work, I readied myself for a long day of punching the keyboard. I knew that when you talk about Garland “Rabbit” Thompson there is a lot of history that follows. Once I readied my questions I walked down to the end of second avenue in Williamson to the tiny little corner café called 34-Ate. I locked eyes with Thompson as I entered the door and I’m sure he knew I was there for another reason other than their delicious Hawaiian Sandwich.
I walked to the back of the café and motioned for Thompson to exit the kitchen and join me for a chat, he obliged and we settled on a small table for two outside the establishment. It felt more like a lunch than an interview.
He strayed from addressing the elephant in the room and made me earn my paycheck for the day. “So they tell me you resigned this morning,” I said. He looked away for a second a responded with, “Boy, that news sure got out quick.” I agreed.
I watched as the two time state championship winning coach set at the table on a brisk April morning and began to speak about the events unfolding. He agreed to an interview on the condition that we not run a big picture and make a big deal out of the situation. I accepted the terms and began with the questions.
I should probably stop right here and bring everyone up to speed with just whom I was interviewing. Rabbit began his coaching career under the direct of Coach Jeff Jackson, a Chattaroy native, at University Heights from 1995-1999. Then he returned to a program closer to home with the Williamson Wolfpack and was assistant coach to Curt Fletcher. Thompson helped the Wolfpack make it to their last state tournament appearance before the mulching machine of consolidation started gobbling up the old and spitting out the new. He was at Williamson from 1999 to 2007 until he accepted the head coaching job at Tug Valley High School.
While at Tug Valley, Thompson excelled by making five state tournament appearances in eight seasons of coaching. He led the Panthers to back to back state championships, the first in the 2011-2012 season as a Class-AA school and then to the Class-A championship the following season. In his last season as the Head Coach of the Tug Valley Panthers he coached his team to the quarterfinals of the state tournament.
So long story short, the man knows how to win some ball games. It was a somewhat shocking to hear the news that Thompson was moving onto Mingo Central during the spring of last year, he repeatedly explained during multiple interviews that he felt it was the right move for both programs.
Mingo Central had just made the school’s first ever state tournament appearance under the coaching of Brad Napier. The problem with the whole situation was that many fans, myself included, felt the team made it to the state tournament by cutting corners. Nothing was illegal but there were some transfers that arrived at Mingo Central; cousins Dikimbe and Montrell Dixson, who caused a few ripples in the Miner’s pond. Some players at Mingo Central transferred to other schools because of a lack of playing time caused by the fresh transfers, some players just decided they weren’t going to play. When Napier resigned as head coach of the Miners, Garland inherited a complete mess. But the general consensus was that if anyone could work through the problems it was Rabbit.
In order to not get ahead of myself in the story I will return to the events at hand. I started with the most imperative question, which was, “Are you planning on coaching again?” Thompson responded with a sound “No.” He continued by saying, “I believe the game has passed me by, if the good lord wants me to work at the restaurant then that’s what I will do.” I set there for a moment holding back my immediate reactions of surprise, confusion, and wanting to throw my own two cents into this by explaining how he should live his life. Luckily I was able to refrain from my primal urges and act professional.
Now that the conversation had taken this turn I was ready to ask why he stepped down. I know the Miners had a dreadful season this year by only winning two games but with every new day; brings new opportunities for improvement. Before I could ask the next question Thompson began speaking with the response he had presumably already practiced in his head.
“I feel this is what’s best for the school and the community. I was not able to accomplish what I believe I could have; we had two returning starters from last season who had been to the state tournament and I just couldn’t bring the team back to a higher level,” said Thompson. In my mind I was admiring the guts that Thompson showed by taking all of the blame. That’s something that is very seldom seen in today’s world, it’s usually someone else’s fault but, Thompson truly doesn’t believe that. He accepts the blame for the situation, even though I will clearly say that I believe a lot of the problems surrounding the program are not because of his actions; they clearly aren’t.
He continued with a politically correct response and a heartfelt apology that showed many hours of introspective judgment and revelation that had occurred inside this man. “I want to thank the administration at Mingo Central; Mr. Kinder and Principal Jones for going out on a limb and giving me the opportunity to try. I would like to apologize to the parents and kids from over the years that I have not treated fairly. I want to apologize to the parents and kids who I have cut, did not give the proper amount of playing time, and the ones who I didn’t start who should have started,” said Thompson.
I immediately broke out of reporter mode an offered my condolences to try and say that I understand it’s not all his fault. I’m not sure I was able to convey my real feelings for the situation.
Once I was able to compose myself enough to continue the interview, I asked my next question; “I hear that your assistant Robbie Browning is up for consideration for the job, do you recommend him for the position?” He smiled and his voice eased up. With no tension in his voice at all he said, “I believe Robbie would be great for the job, he is fundamentally sound and younger. The program has years of rebuilding ahead, Robbie would be a great choice to be given that task, I believe he would do a great job at staying the course and doing what the program needs.”
Then it hit me; despite all of the buildup that was present heading into his first year as the coach he had realized during some point as a Miner that this may be more than he could do, maybe more than he was prepared to give. If that is the case then this was the right decision. He was truly being sincere.
I understand completely. I have spent time in the stands at Miners games, talked to the people and have spent plenty of time in the communities that make up Mingo Central. There are special aspects that surround the school that can really wear you down and beat you to your knees. From my own personal experience I know that every school and program will never be able to satisfy the masses. Not everyone will be completely content with how things happen when groups of people are formed for certain purposes. After traveling from school to school you get to see that they begin to take on personalities of their own, or at least that’s how my mind sees it. Out of all the schools I cover there is a certain bitterness at Mingo Central that is undeniable, with no clear picture of why. It can be a bit much at times.
I looked up at Rabbit and shook his hand and told him that was all I needed. I informed him I would be back for a sandwich from time to time because I do love those Hawaiian sandwiches at 34-Ate. He informed me that potato soup was the special for the day and I was tempted to hang around and ask more questions while I sampled a bowl. But the story needed to be written and I hurried back down to the office.
I felt moved by the whole situation; I wanted to do something to help. This was my idea, to write a column and say what needed to be said. It was not Rabbit’s fault that the program had slipped into the state that it is in. He is a generally good coach with a mountain of basketball knowledge to share. Maybe he was pushed a little bit farther than his comfort zone would allow by a few who should share a smidge of the responsibility. But, through my time on this earth and in this area some things just are what they are, and somethings will never change; same story with a different cast.
I hope things change and the man I talked to finds a place he feels joy. Once a sport gets into your blood, there is no clear remedy. In my own opinion the sport of basketball could use a few more Rabbits and few less snakes.
(William Plaster is the sports reporter for the Williamson Daily News, he can be reached at 304-235-4242 ext. 2274 or at [email protected] or on twitter @sidplaster)