June 20, 2008

June 20, 2008

It's never too early.

With the 2008 season in the books, our neuroses turn to 2009. From Division I to Division III, MCLA to WDIA, we're spanning the college lacrosse globe for a look at what's in store for coaches and players. Check back to LMO each Friday for a new Q&A feature, as our "Countdown to `09" series commences.

by Jac Coyne, Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

When he graduated from Brown in 2003, Jon Thompson knew he wanted to be a head lacrosse coach. On Wednesday, he got his wish.

Unlike many of his former fellow D-I assistants who have everything invested in staying at the same level, Thompson - who was Brown's top assistant for the past two seasons - decided to jump at the opportunity to take over the program at Division III Colby (Maine) College.

A member of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) - the so-called "Little Ivies" - Colby has been an inconsistent player in one of D-III's power conferences, leaving Thompson, a Maine native, some work to do.

Countdown caught up with Thompson on Wednesday shortly after the announcement of his hire to see what factors were weighed in his decision, among other issues.

When you weighed the pros and cons of going to Colby over staying at Brown, what put Colby over the top?

It's funny you ask me about the pros and cons. There really were a lot of pros on both sides. There are a lot of great things about what we were able to do at Brown. I have the utmost respect for [head coach] Lars Tiffany and what he's been able to accomplish at Brown. At the same time it's always been a goal of mine to be a head coach at a place that values the balance between academics and athletics the way that Colby and the NESCAC do.

So when I weighed those pros and cons, I've got an opportunity on one hand to continue to build something great at my alma mater. But what I have the opportunity to do on the other hand is affect the lives of 40 men and help build 40 men into great leaders, great communicators and great competitors. To have the opportunity to help them become the best competitors they can be while doing so ethically is just too great an opportunity to turn down. It just seemed that as soon as I got the blessing from my wonderful wife, it was a no-brainer. To be able to guide and mentor 40 men who are extremely hungry to compete for a NESCAC title is extremely exciting.

Moving down two divisions is a major career move. Did Lars or any of your other coaching mentors give you any advice while pursuing this position?

There's no doubt that it was something that weighed heavily. It was part of the decision that many people who I spoke asked me about. Are you ready to move down from Division I to Division III? And to be quite honest, I've never looked it at that way. I've never looked at it as a move down. I've never been caught up in the Division I thing. I know a lot of people who are very serious about being a Division I coach and that's all they want to do for the rest of their lives and they are willing to be an assistant coach for a number of years until they get an opportunity as a Division I head coach. I've never followed that path.

From day one, when I was being recruited by scholarship schools and Brown, it was not a difficult decision for me to turn down scholarships to accept a spot at a place like Brown that valued the balance between athletics and academics equally. To this day that is still one of my major tenets as a man. To become a head coach at place that holds the same values as I do, to be able to look the players in the eye and know they have the same values as I do in respect to athletics and academics as I do, it never felt like a move down to me. I understand your question because I know a lot of people do think that way, but I've never looked at it that way.

The NESCAC is much like the Ivy in that there are very few days off on the conference schedule. What are the keys to being successful in a power conference?

The similarity between the NESCAC and the Ivy League is part of the reason I was attracted to the Colby position. One of the reasons why we realized some success in the Ivy League this year is because we had a great goalie, there is no question about that, but collectively, we just played with a competitive fire that was hard to match. I don't think we got out-competed this year with maybe the exception of one game. As a program, that's something the Brown players and staff have been able to build - a competitive culture.

By earning every single stripe you build your confidence. It feels better to have earned something than to have been given it, right? So by building confidence based on work ethic and desire and passion, you create a culture of confidence and a competitive fire. And by nurturing that fire, when it's late in the game and your team needs to make a play versus another very talented team, it's usually the person who is going to compete harder, who is confident they are going to compete harder day-in and day-out, play-in and play-out, is usually the one who will win those one-goal games. This year we proved that passion and a blue-collar work ethic can build confidence, which as you know sure helps when you are trying to win games.

As I move forward into the NESCAC, my hope is to harness some of the spark that has been created in Waterville. It's a little like moving a flywheel. We're going to push and give it all of our energy right now for the next seven months. That flywheel might not move at first, but if we are cohesive in our efforts, eventually we'll budge that wheel. Once we get it to rock, once we get it to start going forward, then we will need to continue to push in unison. And once we get that flywheel moving forward it makes it a lot easier to increase its speed. Once you earn that momentum it's difficult to stop. That culture is what is going to be important for us to find the competitive fire to find one goal wins. And in the NESCAC, one-goal wins are a major key to our success.

Because of the way things work in the NESCAC, you won't be able to see your players with a stick in their hands until Feb. 15. Walk me through what your evaluation process will be like and how you'll take stock of your team over the next nine months.

It's going to be a heckuva challenge for me. One that I'm excited about, but a very different challenge than Division I where you get to work with [the players] in skill sessions. Not only evaluating your own team, but on the recruiting road. What am I looking for right now? Right now, I'm going out and looking for the best players who will help Colby. Looking for the best competitors. A year from now I might say, `Holy cow, we're going to lose our goaltender or a long-stick middie,' and need to go out and replace them. I can learn that by looking at the stats from 2008, but I don't know those guys who didn't play as much in 2008. I don't know what they have to offer. I don't know what they have to offer competitively yet, either.

I will not have the chance to evaluate the lacrosse skills until Feb. 15, so my challenge will be to make sure the staff is prepared; that we've got a plan and we're organized so we're not wasting time learning how to evaluate. I'll tell you right now - and you've probably heard it in my philosophy - the first thing we will evaluate when we get to Colby on Feb. 15 is competitive fire.

How will you compete for us? As soon you get that depth chart going, all of a sudden, you're earning your playing time and it makes it real easy to see who is willing and who really cares about earning their stripes.

I've tried to pick the brains of some coaches in Division III who have played Colby. When the word gets out it will be a lot harder to pick NESCAC coach's brains though. [laughing] I've been trying to use due diligence to see what is in the cupboard right now, but one thing I am thankful for is the work that Rob Quinn has done. He has done a tremendous job recruiting talent to Colby. He has left me with offensive and defensive talent, there is no question. He also has a good face-off guy coming in. I can't take any credit for it, but I can thank him through and through for it. He's done a great job, he's a good man and I'm excited to follow in his footsteps and continue to build on his success and begin to further the Colby lacrosse tradition.

What's the best piece of coaching advice you've received?

That's a good question. The first piece of advice that comes to me - and I've got a couple of them - but the first piece of advice that comes to me is from Lars. I remember when he first took the job at Brown he didn't just hand me the first assistant's job. He made me work for it a bit. I remember his emphasis on `proving it.' I never expected to be handed the job but he did make me `prove it.' Being meticulous, making sure that every detail was looked after, that there was a plan for everything, proving it to myself and to the men.

Along those same lines is the philosophy of expect nothing and earn everything. That, you'll see, will carry over to our lacrosse program at Colby. People may expect to play but are they willing to earn it? Are you ready to earn your goals by being the best in the weight room, being the best aerobically, the most dedicated in the film room? You've got to earn that right to be the number No. 1 face-off guy, the No. 1 goalie, the No. 1long-stick middie. Again, doesn't it always make you feel better, and more confident to earn your role?

And as a coach, I have to earn the respect from not only a great group of men and a great group of administrators at Colby, but I'll tell you what, I'm looking forward to earning the respect of a great group of coaches in the NESCAC fraternity. I'm excited to cut my teeth against some of these guys. They're pretty darn good coaches.

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