Editor's note: Building highly successful athletics programs requires many facets. In this "Auburn Builds Champions" series, we will profile eight Auburn Athletics coaches and support staff members and their keys to success. In part one, baseball coach Butch Thompson discusses the importance of staffing.
By Greg Ostendorf
AUBURN, Ala. – Since Butch Thompson arrived at Auburn prior to the 2016 season, his vision has always been to win a championship. At his introductory press conference, he made it clear that he thought all the ingredients were in place and that the commitment to get to Omaha and play in the College World Series was there.
As he embarks on his third season at Auburn, that vision remains the same.
"I want to reach our ceiling, and then I want the ceiling removed, opened up, and I want the ceiling built higher," Thompson said.
"Whatever 2018 holds from a win and loss (standpoint), I know we're building an unbelievable program. We just sold the most season tickets in the history of our program. We've been here for four academic semesters, and it's the four best this decade. It's all the way around. Plainsman Park is being restored and looking better and better."
However, none of that matters unless you have the right people.
It starts with putting together a group of players that fit what Auburn is trying to do, but to accomplish that, Thompson has to assemble a staff that shares his same vision because they are the ones recruiting the players and helping develop them the right way.
"We're here for the players," Thompson said. "And to grow the players at the highest level, I have to put them around people who are above reproach. If these are master teachers, the people that lead these players from being young men into really being men ready to go out in the real world when they leave here, then our staff is the most important thing that we have."
This past offseason was unique for Thompson, who had to replace both of his assistant coaches.
Brad Bohanon left to become the head coach at Alabama, and Doug Sisson returned to Major League Baseball where he's working for the Chicago White Sox organization.
When it came time to replace those two, Thompson knew that he would have to find coaches who would continue to buy into this idea of "we have to get who we are" and who would understand what Auburn is and what he'd be looking for as the head coach. It's the same in recruiting. It's about trying to get who you are, not always who you want.
With that in mind, new assistant coach Gabe Gross made perfect sense.
Not only was Gross a first-round pick who went on to play in a World Series, he understands Auburn as well as anybody. Gross played for the Tigers from 1999-01 where he was a two-time All-SEC performer and a first-team All-American in 2000, and he's been living in the community since he retired from the majors in 2011.
"From a purely baseball point of view, if you don't get Auburn and Auburn's not a little bit in your blood and you don't enjoy this place, you're not going to be very happy and you're not going to play very good baseball," Gross said.
Karl Nonemaker also gets Auburn. The other new assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for the Tigers served as a volunteer assistant at Auburn nearly a decade ago where he worked on the same staff as Thompson. It was at that point in their careers that Thompson knew the two would reconnect at some point down the road.
"That's what type of impression he made on me as a young coach," Thompson said.
So when Old Dominion head coach Chris Finwood called Thompson and told him that Nonemaker – his assistant at the time – was ready, Thompson believed him.
"Karl possesses all these things (we're looking for)," Thompson said. "Karl will be an unbelievable head coach at some point, and I'm going to do everything for Karl, Katie and those two beautiful girls to help grow – not only if he'll invest in Auburn and if he'll work hard where his feet are planted right now – I'll do anything to help him move his career along.
"But it became pretty clear and pretty easy, no matter how many great people around the country seemed interested in the position, that Karl was just a clear-cut."
That was supposed to be it. Thompson needed to replace Bohanon and Sisson, and he did so with Nonemaker and Gross. But then the opportunity to hire Steve Smith arose, and it was too good to pass up. Smith is Baylor's all-time winningest head coach. He's also been head coach of the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team and president of the American Baseball Coaches Association.
So Thompson, who had coached pitchers his entire career, brought on Smith to take on that same role and serve as Auburn's pitching coach this season.
"If I've got a chance to get him, why would I not do it?" Thompson asked. "The only two reasons would be my pride and my ego. I owe it to these players. So if I can stay focused on making decisions of what's best for our players, I have to go get Steve Smith if we can acquire him and bring him into the program."
Three new assistant coaches. Same vision.
The goal this year, like it has been every year, is to make it to Omaha and play in the College World Series. And Thompson feels like he's assembled a staff that will continue to build the program and make strides in reaching that goal.
"We really added three unbelievable men to our coaching staff," Thompson said. "And I have never, in 26 years of coming to an office of work and being fortunate enough that my job's at a baseball field, I've never been happier or more excited to work with the people I work with and come to the office every day.
"I don't know if that wins you ball games, but you feel good about it."
Through the first week, the new staff has helped bring success. Auburn is 5-0 for the first time since 2001, and credit the new assistant coaches who have already started to make an impact on the current group of players. They also left an impression on former MLB pitcher Tom Glavine, whose son Peyton is a freshman pitcher with the Tigers.
"It's a great staff," Glavine said. "Guys with a lot of experience, obviously, and guys who know the college game. It's important. As a parent, you want your kid to go have the best possible experience. For him to be here in this environment, that certainly is a huge plus.
"Having all of those guys who have the experience that they have, and the reputation they have of working with the kids, it's a great place for him to be."
Greg Ostendorf is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @greg_ostendorf