HICKORY –– Even the world’s greatest symphony orchestra has a maestro to direct it, keeping all the players of each instrument focused and in line.
Lenoir-Rhyne University’s football team has one, too.
When the Bears (13-1) face Northwest Missouri State (14-0) for the NCAA Division II championship on Saturday at noon in Florence, Ala., the guy running the offensive show will be Brent Thompson.
Thompson, 37, started his career as a graduate assistant coaching outside linebackers at Dickson (Pa.) College in 1998 and transitioned to being an offensive coach in 2000.
Two years before that –– with a degree in peace, war and diplomacy from Norwich University in Vermont –– Thompson thought he was headed to a military career rather than into coaching.
He’s in his 16th season, and fourth at LRU.
“Originally,” he said, “my career path was going to be in the services. I was either going to go into the Army or the Marines at the time after attending a military college.
“But I always knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to try coaching. So I had gotten a job in the spring of my senior year and thought I would give coaching a try for a couple of years, and 16 years later I’m still coaching.”
Knowing how to teach and coordinate the triple option got Thompson to Hickory. While offensive coordinator at Bucknell University, where he directed a triple option offense, he found himself virtually without a job when the head coach there headed for San Jose State.
Figuring the new head coach at Bucknell would want to bring his own staff, Thompson was the beneficiary of a few phone calls. One, he said, was from a friend working at the Naval Academy who had heard that LRU offensive coordinator Tommy Laurendine, who had put in the triple option, was leaving.
Laurendine, now head coach at Sewanee (Tenn.) University, left LRU to become offensive coordinator at The Citadel. The friend called former LRU head coach Fred Goldsmith to tell him about Thompson.
“Sure enough, I get a call from Coach Goldsmith and he’s down in Texas working in the All-Star game and he said that I could come and meet with him on Super Bowl weekend,” Thompson recalled. “So I came down and actually went to (LRU head coach Mike) Houston’s house for a Super Bowl party not knowing anyone on the staff, and I just fit in great with those guys.”
By Monday of the next week, Thompson was in an interview with Goldsmith and Houston.
“Before I walked out of there, I was signing my contract,” Thompson said.
By 2010, Thompson had the Bears averaging more than 400 yards per game offensively for the first time in 18 years, and they led NCAA Division II with 319.5 yards per game.
Last season, the Bears averaged nearly 400 yards per game and ranked third in the country in rushing (287.1) but there was more improvement to come.
This season, LRU has 5,290 rushing yards –– 31 shy of breaking the NCAA Division II record for single-season rushing –– and the Bears lead Division II in rushing at 377.9 yards per game.
Thompson says having some experience as a defensive coach helped him make the Bears especially bullish in their ground game.
In an era of spread offenses and razzle dazzle, LRU loves the option and old school running the ball no matter the new trends.
“The triple option offense for us may appear at times to be antiquated and may appear at times to be something that’s not keeping up with the times,” Thompson said. “But we feel like we’re keeping up with the option well and we’re doing as many things as we possibly can to be dynamic and be creative.”
And the Bears, says Thompson, are not a one-dimensional football team.
“If you ask people that defense us, I would say that they would say they would have a problem with calling us one-dimensional,” he said. “We attack on so many different fronts.
“We try to attack you where you’re not looking and those are the things we really try to do. We try to force as many options as possible at you and we will take our shots downfield.
“But when you’re not very proficient at throwing the football on a wet rainy day then why do you have to do it? Especially if you’re moving the football.”
Moving the football is the primary thing on Thompson’s mind most of the time –– he says his life revolves around football –– but he does enjoy playing some golf as well.
“Those are about the two things that I do outside of spending time with my wife and my dog and with two kids on the way I’ll spend more time with them.” Thompson said. “I do what I do because I love doing it and not because I get paid a whole bunch for it.
“I love being with the kids and I love this team. I love being able to try to win the battles on the field.”
Houston, who plays golf with Thompson and says he has the upper hand there, credits the hiring of Thompson as one of the turning points for the Bears, who have now won or shared three straight South Atlantic Conference titles.
“I go back to his hiring as being one of the turning points for our program,” Houston said. “Certainly, the recruiting is very important and we have a great staff from top to bottom.
“But the turning point offensively was his addition to the coaching staff. His preparation and his work ethic are top notch, you can’t ask for someone that is more prepared on every game day than he is or that is more competitive than he is.”