Michael Tompkins, the second-year assistant coach at Alabama A&M, had his career plan all figured out. He’d get a few years under his belt as an assistant coach, move around some and, with any luck, a he’d get his shot at head coaching position right about the time he turned 29 or 30 years old. On Jan. 5, those plans went out the window.
It was then that Tompkins was told by A&M head coach Ed McCann that he was thinking about resigning for health reasons. Tompkins was concerned about McCann’s health … then was worried about who would lead the baseball program. It was the man in the mirror, all of 24 years old — a designation that makes him the youngest baseball coach in Division I.
“It was a shock,” Tompkins said. “It went from me helping out and suggesting to running it. But it helped a lot being here already. It helped me get my feet wet. I ran the offense last year from third base. I made all the calls in that regard.
“The only thing I didn’t do was the pitching and game-day management. But I think from just watching and sitting there with him, and I have been under some really good coaches in high school and junior college and have been able to learn from some of the best. That’s been a big part of making me feel comfortable in the role that I’m in now. I expected this to eventually happen, but no way was I thinking it would happen at 24.”
Tompkins doesn’t have to rely too heavily on long-term memory to recall what those coaches taught him; he is just two years removed from his playing days at Centenary. That is the most recent part of his resume. Tompkins has a solid background. A native of Walla Walla, Wash., he won four consecutive state high school titles before moving on to Walla Walla Community College. There he played first base and helped the Warriors win the 2007 Northwest Athletic Association Community College East Region tournament.
After Junior College, he went on to play for McCann at Centenary in Shreveport, La. Tompkins, in 2009, was third on the team with a .348 batting average and totaled 44 runs, 63 hits, 13 doubles, eight home runs, 45 RBI and 100 total bases. Tompkins also pitched for the Gents, appearing in 13 games starting four. In his lone season on the mound he posted a 2-1 record with a 4.57 earned run average and 21 strikeouts.
Tompkins taking over a program at such a young age may be a novel occurrence in the SWAC, but is not unprecedented.
Long Island’s Fran Giannone, who also was hired at 24, led that baseball program for 29 years before retiring in 2005. In 1981, Bill Brown, then 24, took over as head coach at George Mason and is still there after 32 years. In 2008 Ritchie Price took over the South Dakota State program at 24, and held that post until this season, when he left to become an assistant coach at Kansas.
And Tim Capstraw, now a radio analyst for the New Jersey Nets was 23 when he was head baseball coach at Wagner from 1983-85. Then, at 28, he was also Wagner’s basketball coach from 1989-1999.
“I guess we’re still a little in shock,” Tompkins said. “Me and [the] staff, we were talking about how we wanted to be around there for a long time. I think this just caught everybody by surprise. It just happened real fast. I mean, two years ago I was getting ready for my senior season.
“I know what guys are going through. We’ve got a young team. I think that will actually work in our favor. Having the guy there who has just done that, know what they are doing. I think that will help the transition a little bit.”
That McCann gave him so much responsibility; Tompkins was ready for the chance.
“I had an integral part on coach McCann’s staff in terms of practice, how things went,” Tompkins said. “I planned the practices. So it’s not going to be as big [as it would have been] for someone who did not have that opportunity. From a practice standpoint and a student athlete standpoint, I helped monitor grades to see how athletes were doing. I was the primary recruiter, so it hasn’t been as stressful as I thought it would be.’
His players agree. This was the right man at the right time for this program.
“We all think this is a good thing,” said Walt Ashwander, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound junior second baseman. “He’s not too far removed from playing himself. He knows the game. He’s a player’s coach.
“Really, we don’t look at it as being a big deal. There is happiness because we can just keep on rolling. If it has been a new coach and a new coaching staff, then it probably would be a bigger deal than it is for us. Nothing changes for us. We have the same goal we set in the fall and that is to win the SWAC. That’s what we want to do.”