Sacramento State’s defensive guru gives the team a bedrock to become a national power

·6 min read

Andy Thompson once took a college course heavy on economics, commerce strategy and such - and nearly fell to the floor in sheer boredom.

This was a football guy, the son of a coach and the grandson of one, trying to make sense of what came across as a different language. It took that moment in a lecture hall in Western Montana some 22 years ago to reroute Thompson’s life.

“I was taking a business class,” Sacramento State’s defensive coordinator explained Tuesday after practice, “and I didn’t do very well. Dad told me to get into education. I got my teaching credential and got into what I wanted to do.”

Which is to coach, every day, year-round, and that means to crunch numbers and data and to plot a different sort of strategy. Thompson is an established name in college football, certainly at the FCS level of which Sacramento is a member, because of the way he organizes his pieces on the football field, then unleashes all manner of havoc. College football is all about wide-open offensive attacks, and the defensive coordinators are tasked with slowing it down, disrupting flow, or getting run over.

But there can be simplicity in the concept of attacking an offense.

“Every week is different,” Thompson said. “Every team is different, every season is different. You come up with a plan, practice it, stick with it, and remain fresh because the offense is moving the ball for us. But yeah, this is a lot of fun. I love it.”

A Big Sky guy

Thompson grew up in the Pacific Northwest, in Walla Walla, Wash., mentored by his father Mark and grandfather Roy. He played quarterback and defensive back at FCS powerhouse Montana, winning a national championship in 2001. He registered 103 tackles in 44 career games.

Two days after graduating from Montana in 2004, Thompson landed his first job, as an assistant at small-college Eastern Oregon in the northeastern part of the state. The road trips to California were by bus, 20 hours or more, or some 16 hours to Billings in Montana, and don’t forget to pack the chains for snow.

Thompson then made his mark in the Big Sky Conference, the best FCS collection of teams in the country. He coached for 13 seasons at Northern Arizona, 10 of those as defensive coordinator. He applied for the head coach opening following the 2018 season and was stung when he didn’t get it.

Thompson landed the defensive coordinator post at fellow Big Sky Conference member Southern Utah, but didn’t last long. It wasn’t the right fit. A call from Sac State coach Troy Taylor, freshly hired in January of 2019, changed Thompson’s course again.

Taylor in the early days of 2019 picked the brains of his coaching friends at Cal, his alma mater, seeking a coordinator. Thompson’s name came up. Taylor called Thompson. They clicked, and a sharp offensive mind was paired with a defensive guru, and the needle has pushed heavy Hornets green for Sac State’s football fortunes ever since.

Said Thompson, “I was in Cedar City, Utah for seven days. I loved Troy’s vision. We hit it off. We lived together for a stretch before our families came here and settled in, and it was football nonstop. Great coach. Sharpest, smartest football guy I’ve ever been around, and I knew I didn’t want to coach against him. Rather coach with him, and we’ve become great friends.”

Taylor shares similar high praise of his coordinator. Sac State won its first Big Sky crown in 2019 with Thompson’s defense ranking as the best in the Big Sky and Taylor earning national Coach of the Year honors. That was Sac State’s finest team since the school began blocking and tackling in 1954.

There was no 2020 season due to the pandemic, and Sac State opted out of the spring 2021 campaign to prepare for this one. The Hornets are 4-2 this season, ranked in the Top 25 after the defense made the final stops Saturday at then-No. 5 Montana for a 28-21 victory, making for a whirlwind emotional weekend for Thompson.

“He’s the golden boy there!” Taylor said with a laugh, with Thompson waving him off.

Sac State halted an 0-12 skid in Missoula. The Hornets are 2-0 against the Grizzlies since the coaches took over, and are 11-1 in the Big Sky and 7-0 against FCS teams on the road. Thompson’s defense played well in a 19-7 opening win at Dixie State in Utah, had a late stop to thwart Idaho State 23-21 in a Big Sky opener, played big in a 41-20 win over Southern Utah, and then the effort at Montana, which was a 19-point favorite and came in having won 20 of 22 contests against the Hornets all time. Now more fun: Northern Arizona brings its prolific offense to Hornet Stadium on Saturday, a 6 p.m. start (on CW31 and ESPN+).

Said Taylor after the Montana game of Thompson, “He’s the smartest football guy I’ve been around, and I’ve been around some really, really smart guys, The plan he put together, his composure, the way he takes care of his guys ... he’s as valuable as they get.”

Sac State athletic director Mark Orr added Tuesday after practice, “We’re so lucky to have Andy Thompson here, and Troy, and credit to Troy for assembling such a great staff. We’re building something special here.”

A family tradition

Taylor and Thompson are football lifers, but they won’t let the sport consume every bit of their life because it can. The sport tends to swallow coaches whole. Thompson, 40, and wife Mikal have three young sons: Mac, Austin and Teague. His greatest weekly football joy is watching his sons play flag football.

The families of Sac State coaches travel with the team, adding to the family feel for the upstart program.

“You can be a great coach and a great father and a great husband,” Taylor said. “The season is more draining, but we’re not a group that’s here at the office until midnight or 1 in the morning, pounding our chests, ‘We’re here!’”

The postgame scene in Montana in the Sac State locker room was of elation. Thompson was the man of the hour. He insisted the players were the men of the day.

“So much fun to win that game,” Thompson said.

Said Sac State defensive lineman Josh Erickson, “That’s why we play, for moments like that. Coach Thompson puts in so much time to prepare us, and we follow his plan and trust him. He keeps everyone fired up and engaged. That’s the difference between any coach and a great one. He loves people, and we love him.”

Thompson looks like a guy who could still rush the passer. The players say as much,

“I think he can still play a few downs if it wasn’t some sort of NCAA violation,” Erickson said. “He’s totally into it.”

Added Taylor, “That was a special win. We can be so focused on the work, the process, and then to win a game like that, there’s so much joy and energy.”

Thompson said it’s deeper than that even.

“Being together as a team after COVID and not having a season or a spring, that sort of celebration shows what we can accomplish together.”

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