Jason Thompson had never seriously considered applying for a head coaching position. When the Sterlington High job opened up, Thompson decided to throw his name in the hat. On Tuesday night, word began to spread that the former Neville defensive coordinator had landed what Sterlington Principal Dell Ashley called the most sought-after position in the history of the Ouachita Parish School system.
“To be honest, (being a head coach) was not on my bucket list,” Thompson said. “As far as I was concerned, I was in a great place, doing what I wanted to do and I was going to stay there as long as they wanted me.
“There's one job that would have gotten me away from Neville and that's the head coaching job at Sterlington. That's how highly I think of this community and this school. I know great things can be done here. I'm looking forward to rolling up my sleeves, getting to work and trying to bring back the past glory that this program enjoyed when coach Ashley was coaching.”
Emerging from a vast contingent of 58 applicants, Thompson was introduced as the Panthers' new head football coach and athletic director at a Wednesday afternoon press conference in the school library.
“One guy stood out in my mind,” said Ashley, who first met Thompson during the interview process.
“Everyone I have talked to spoke highly of his character. I haven't heard one negative word about him.”
Now that the exhaustive search process has ended, Ashley is confident he picked the right coach.
“A lot of thought and a lot of prayer went into this decision,” Ashley said.
Thompson spent 7 ½ years at Neville, one of the top Class 4A programs in the state, including the past two as defensive coordinator. He was the Tigers' special teams coordinator from 2008-10 and coached linebackers throughout his tenure on coach Mickey McCarty's staff.
“I think Sterlington has hired a fine coach,” McCarty said. “They have a fine family coming over there. We certainly enjoyed having them at Neville and wish them the best of luck at Sterlington.”
Thompson was accompanied at the press conference by his wife, Wendy, daughter Katie Beth (14), and son Cole (9). He said the family plans to move to Sterlington from West Monroe at some point around the end of the school year.
A member of the final graduating class at Calhoun High School (which later became West Ouachita), Thompson went on to play baseball at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss.
He began his coaching career with a pair of one-year stops at Woodlawn Jr. High in West Monroe and Washington High School in Greenville, Miss. Returning to the area, he coached at West Ouachita and Ouachita, serving as an assistant football coach and head baseball coach at both schools, before moving on to Neville.
Page 2 of 3 - “I've taken some good and bad from each stop,” Thompson said. “A lot of times, you can learn from the bad as much as the good as far as how not to do things. I've picked up something at every stop.
“I've been blessed to have worked with a lot of people that were not only good coaches, but quality people and leaders. (Former ULM and West Ouachita head coach) Pat Collins comes to mind. Mickey McCarty is as fine of a coach, leader and person as a I know. I certainly intend to try to bring as many of Mickey's attributes as I can to my current job at Sterlington.”
McCarty understands that some will question the decision to hire a first-time head coach to lead the Sterlington program, having been the target of the same questions when he was promoted to head coach at Neville in 2002. Eleven years later, McCarty has quieted his critics with two state titles (2009, 2011) and a state runner-up finish in 2012.
“I know how it is, there may be some doubters out there because of his lack of experience as a head coach,” McCarty said. “After working with Jason over the years, I certainly feel like he's ready to handle the responsibilities and do the things necessary to be a great head coach.”
“I think the people of Sterlington will fall in love with Jason and I think the players will be real excited once they get to know him. He's going in there with a vision for the program and he's going to accomplish some positive things, for sure.”
Thompson replaces Mike Collins, who guided the Panthers to a 30-37 record from 2007-12. Last year's team finished 6-6 after an 0-4 start. Sterlington defeated St. Thomas Aquinas 49-42 in the first round of the Class 2A state playoffs, before losing to Calvary Baptist 56-28 in the second round.
Ashley, the most successful coach in school history, directed the Panthers to a 111-35 mark from 1996-2006, a stretch highlighted by back-to-back state runner-up trophies in 2002 (Class 1A) and 2003 (Class 2A).
Thompson sees his new boss's background as a plus.
“It's always nice as a head football coach to have an ex-head football coach as your principal,” Thompson said. “Coach Ashley knows all the trials and tribulations that come with the job because he's already been there, done that.”
Sterlington's offense took off last season after Ashley installed the splitback veer at midseason.
Although Thompson has yet to decide on an offensive system, he says the Panthers will emphasize the run.
“I think this school's identity is to run the ball,” Thompson said. “Whatever scheme we decide to run will be run first and pass when we want to.”
Page 3 of 3 - Thompson met with the Panthers' players and coaches for the first time Wednesday afternoon.
Understandably, sorting out the duties of each staff member will take some time.
“I have to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each guy and see where they best fit,” Thompson said, adding that the same goes for his own role. “Defense is my comfort zone, but if I'm needed on offense,
I'll go to work on that side of the ball.”
Thompson says the Panthers' spring practice dates will be determined at a later date.
“As athletic director, I want to see all the spring sports succeed and hopefully go win a state championship of their own,” Thompson said. “We'll have spring training after the spring sports wrap up, probably in May, right at the end of school.”
Thompson says his vision is for Sterlington to be highly-successful in all sports.
“I'm humbled to get this opportunity,” he said. “My goal for the athletic program as a whole is to make this the best place in the state.”