AUBURN — Butch Thompson was quick to point out Monday that he has, in fact, been to a college world series as a head coach. Just not this College World Series.
It was 1997, Thompson’s lone season as the head coach at Jefferson State Community College in between three- and four-year stints as an assistant at Birmingham-Southern. The Pioneers went 39-21 and reached the NJCAA Division II Baseball World Series, where they finished third.
And as Auburn made its own run through the NCAA tournament over the past two weeks, Thompson said some of those players on that Jefferson State team were “texting him like crazy,” telling him, “Come on Coach” — lead another team the sport’s biggest stage.
"It just lets you know what it means to (reach) a world series,” Thompson said.
Twenty-two years later, Thompson is going back to a world series. And not just a world series — the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. He’s been there before, as an assistant coach with Mississippi State (who Auburn will open against on Sunday at 6:30 p.m.) in 2013, but never as a head coach.
Thompson tried to keep all the focus on his players Monday. They’re the ones that piled up 13 runs in the first inning of a 14-7 win over North Carolina in a winner-take-all Game 3 of a super regional one day after getting shutout in Game 2, not him.
But as he sat inside Boshamer Stadium with a “OMAHA BOUND” hat on his head, Thompson couldn’t help but take a moment to reflect on what leading Auburn to its first College World Series appearance since 1997 means to him personally.
“I could lie and say, ‘Hey, it’s not a big deal,’ but it’s a lot, to be honest with you,” he said. “It’s kind of the acid test in this standard that we try to live up to that’s not always realistic in this day and time. ‘Can he coach?’ ‘He’s been an assistant coach, but can he do it as a head coach?’ So I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a big deal. I’m honest in knowing that it is a big deal.”
Omaha seemed so far away when Thompson replaced the fired Sunny Golloway in September of 2015. He was a first-year head coach at the Division I level after 14 years as an SEC assistant between Georgia, Auburn and Mississippi State, and the Tigers had qualified for the NCAA tournament just three times over the previous 12 seasons.
They didn’t in his first season at the helm in 2016. Then, in 2017, Auburn came within one out of sweeping a regional at Florida State. In 2018, it swept a regional at N.C. State and came within one run of winning a super regional at Florida. In 2019, it swept a regional at Georgia Tech and won a super regional at North Carolina to reach the College World Series — a simple continuation of that upward postseason trajectory under Thompson.
“One thing (he did) was to provide vision that this was going to happen and to believe it every day, even when he first got here,” said hitting coach Gabe Gross, who came close to reaching the College World Series as a player for the Tigers in 1999 but was eliminated in the super regional stage.
“In the two years I’ve been here, it’s just been a constant in practice and meetings. Not every day, but man, it never leaves us. After big wins, sometimes after tough losses, you know, ‘This program is going there. Period. We’re going to get there.’ It’s something that, once you hear it over and over again, at some level, you’re going to start believing it.”
Auburn’s players certainly did, even through the struggles and the injuries that dogged them throughout the latter half of the regular season. To a man, they said they never lost confidence that they could achieve the goals they set out to this season. They'd probably tell you that Thompson played a significant role in fostering that attitude, too, even if he’d probably rather deflect the credit.
After first baseman Rankin Woley, a junior addition to the team this season, caught the final out Monday, he placed the ball in his back pocket and launched himself into the celebratory dog-pile in front of home plate. Once the revelry subsided, and while Thompson was doing a postgame interview with Paul Ellen of the Auburn Sports Network, Woley hand-delivered that ball to his coach and gave him a huge embrace.
Thompson put it in his bag. He made it sound like it would take a lot for someone to pry that ball away from him.
"He deserves that more than anybody else on the team," Woley told AuburnTigers.com. "There's no better person than Coach Thompson. He's not just a great coach; he's an even better person. That's what a lot of people don't see. We see it. He's one of the best, genuine people that I've ever met."
“He came in with a plan,” junior designated hitter Conor Davis said on the field moments later. “He knew that his first year wasn’t going to be his best year, but every year, he’s gotten better. He’s continued to keep the same mentality every year. Attack, legacy, vision — those have been his three words since the beginning, and ever since then, we’ve been building off that. He’s leaving a legacy right now for us, just to learn from him and the type of man he is and the men he’s making us become is just crazy. He’s just accomplished so much, but there’s a lot more left to be accomplished.”
Regardless of what happens in Omaha, this will go down as one of the greatest seasons in program history. It marks the first time since 2001-03 that Auburn has been to a regional in three consecutive seasons, the first time it has won a super regional and just the fifth time it has reached the College World Series (1967, 1976, 1994 and 1997).
“Those guys are going to be able to come back to Auburn for the rest of their lives, and there’s a legacy,” Thompson said. “There will always be a number, a year, associated with this accomplishment.”
Thompson’s name will be, too.