By Jeff Shearer
For Butch Thompson, it's never been about money. If it had been, he would have changed careers long ago.
Five years into coaching college baseball, Thompson had a Master's degree, a $13,000 salary and no benefits.
Even then, compared to his first coaching job, Butch was making the big bucks.
In that first gig, as an assistant coach at Division III Huntingdon in Montgomery in 1993, Thompson earned $150 per month, plus a dorm room and a meal ticket.
"Every summer I was going to quit and go do something else," Butch says. "But I love baseball."
Thankfully, during those lean years, Butch's wife, Robin, made a good living as an accountant.
"I just kept grinding though it," Butch says. "I've been passionate about it ever since."
After seven seasons as an assistant coach at Birmingham-Southern, Thompson entered the Southeastern Conference as assistant at Georgia in 2002.
"Once I got in the SEC, I just didn't want to leave it," Butch says.
That meant turning down head coaching offers, while developing a sterling reputation as a pitching coach and recruiter as an assistant at Georgia ('02-'05), Auburn ('06-'08) and Mississippi State ('09-'15).
"Opportunities would come along to be a head coach at other schools outside of our conference. I didn't want to leave this league,'' he says. "I'll be an SEC pitching coach as long as I can, unless somebody gives me the opportunity to be a head coach in our league."
That somebody was Jay Jacobs, Auburn's Director of Athletics.
On October 22, 2015, Jacobs hired Thompson to be Auburn's head baseball coach. "The opportunity of a lifetime," Butch called it that day.
More than three months later, sitting in his office just a few steps from the dugout at Plainsman Park, he answers an interviewer's big-picture question, "Who is Butch Thompson?" by pointing to a Scripture on his desk.
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. (Ecclesiastes 9:10)
Invest whole-heartedly in your family and your players. The wins will follow.
"That's what I love about being the head coach at Auburn and being a southern boy myself, I don't have to change my dialect," he says. "I can be at Auburn and be myself.
"Epitaph at the end, that I was pretty good to my wife, and my children. That I tried to provide for them the best I could. That I wasn't trying to win a thousand ballgames as a head coach for a legacy. That I was trying to make a difference. That I was a coach who cared more about who my players will become as a man," he says.
That influence, the ability to pay it forward, inspires Thompson.
"A decade down the road, would they be able to really refer back to and use maybe some of the principles you gave? That's powerful to me. So it's probably less of what they think of me and more of how I helped them way into the future," Butch says. "I want to be more than what I am."
Asked to speak on pitching in January at the American Baseball Coaches Association convention in Nashville, Thompson shared Scriptural principles before addressing curveballs and changeups.
"We need a Paul. We need a mentor who keeps us accountable and keeps us striving for more. When we don't have the answer, these guys have been there before," Butch says. "And we need a Barnabas, we need a brother who we can always go talk to who's going through the same things we are. And then our players are like our Timothys. They're the youth coming up and we're investing in them so one day they can do some neat things."
Ten days after the convention, Thompson had received 150 emails from the 5,000 coaches in the audience.
"And 142 of them are like, 'Thank you for that opening talk,' and it's less to do with the pitching talk," he says. "That's the good stuff."
It's no surprise that Thompson was asked to teach his fellow coaches about pitching.
"I'm pretty good at coaching first-rounders," he says with a smile.
It's Thompson's SEC track record of developing 23 undrafted high school pitchers into Major League Baseball draftees that makes him an expert on the subject.
His system? Don't make every pitcher conform to his system.
"When you're watching somebody pitching a beautifully masterful game and you watch at the highest level, they're all doing it a little differently," Butch says.
"I probably started my career as a pitching coach who tried to make them all look just the same. And that's not what you see at the highest level with the art form of pitching."
In college baseball, many head coaches or pitching coaches insist on calling every pitch from the dugout.
Not Butch Thompson.
"All of our pitchers call their own games. And we're very much in the minority, but Major League Baseball loves it."
The ability, as Thompson puts it, for pitchers "to run their own show" is just one of Auburn's strong points.
"Your league sells itself," Butch says. "Auburn baseball having 46 major league players coming through here sells itself."
Player development is Thompson's next recruiting pitch.
"Our staff is amazing," he says. "I believe I'm the weakest link on our staff from a baseball standpoint."
John Maxwell, a noted leadership author, influenced Thompson's recruiting philosophy during a meeting in 2002.
"He said, `You get who you are, not who you want.'
"If we can get our baseball program to align with our university and let people see who we truly are, that's who we'll get," Butch says. "I mention that statement to our recruits, because we're not going to get everybody. If you really want player development, we're not trying to teach to the masses. I want Auburn baseball to be more of a Gideon's army, down to a smaller group of higher development. I think that's who we are."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer