Coaching changes are pretty rare when you’re talking about the Tucker High School football team. So, when head coach Bryan Lamar left earlier this year to pursue a new opportunity, a lot of people were interested to see who would be selected as his successor. For a program that has multiple state championships and is a perennial playoff participant, the stakes were high.
School leadership did a comprehensive search and ended up going with an unconventional choice. Florida native James Thomson has an extensive and diverse football resumé, but not much experience as a head coach at the high school level. Coach Thomson sat down with InTucker before a recent weightlifting session to talk about his background in football, his philosophy toward coaching and his goals for the Tucker Tiger program.
InTucker: Tell us about the transition and how you ended up in Tucker.
James Thomson: It’s been a great transition. Dr. [Eric] Parker is a fantastic principal. He’s the best I’ve worked for. So, I’m humbled by this opportunity. Any time you take over a program, the first thing that you have to do is understand the tradition and I think that’s where I’m at right now is trying to learn and really just immerse myself in this school and community.
InTucker: What was it in the hiring process that made you want to come here to Tucker?
JT: I looked into it. I did my research and this city is something special. Of course, the tradition. We know what the football program is and the kind of kids we have here, but you know the City and everything together, I think this is one of the best jobs in the State of Georgia.
InTucker: What were you like as a player?
JT: (laughs) Overachieving. I’m 5’ 10” and I played quarterback, so I had to find ways. This was in an era that you had to be tall to play, so it taught me the value of hard work and sacrifice and those things. I played as long as I could, they made me stop and now I coach.
InTucker: With your offensive background, what can we expect Tucker’s offense to look like on the field?
JT: I’ve interned in the NFL. I coached at UCLA. So, we learned pro schemes. I think that that’s something that maybe most high school coaches aren’t familiar with. I’ve done that everywhere I’ve been and that’s what it will be here. You’ll see the same offense that you see run on Sunday by all 32 teams. So I’m excited by the possibilities that we can bring here to Tucker.
InTucker: Where did you intern in the NFL and what was it like?
JT: I [interned] with the Jaguars. It was when [Jack] Del Rio was the coach and it was awesome. You just learn how sophisticated football is. In high school we’re taught that it’s simple, and it is. You try to keep it simple, but if you want to get into the game, you want to learn the game, they do it at a high level and there’s nuances to it that you have to understand.
InTucker: You have to learn work ethic, too…
JT: Even in L.A. there were nights I slept in the parking garage. We were probably getting out at 2 a.m. and then back in the office at 5. So, it was rough.
InTucker: Have you had time here at Tucker to take stock of the talent you have in the program?
JT: The kids have been lifting and it’s been great so far. We’re talented. I think everybody knows that. It’s my job not to mess it up.
InTucker: This is a program that has won state championships, but the results haven’t been to that level in recent years. How do you get back to that level?
JT: Football has a lot to do with luck, too. I think each game that was lost…I can’t say that I’ll be better. I can say that we’re going to work hard at it. We’re going to be competitive and we’re going to do everything we can. I guarantee you we’re going to be an overachieving team.
InTucker: What is your temperament as a coach?
JT: You ask five different people, you’ll get five different answers. (laughs) The thing with me is I truly care about the kids. Not just getting them into college, [but] I care about them 10, 15 years down the line. If you look at my coaching staff, it’s all people that I’ve either coached or played with. So, relationships matter to me. Where I’m from, that’s a big thing. Being able to trust people is big and so that’s the biggest thing with me is actually building relationships with these kids and caring about them 10, 15 years from now.
InTucker: Do you have a mentor in the coaching business?
JT: I’ve got two. My head coach, whose name is Bill Gierke, in Orlando. He coached me and taught me how to care about kids. And my uncle, the guy who got me into UCLA, Kennedy Polamalu is, I mean, he’s kind of my hero. He’s always what I aspire to be in how he manages men and takes over a room. It’s something that I envy.
InTucker: You’re from football-crazy Florida. How does it compare to Georgia in terms of high school football?
JT: Florida football is athletic. The kids down there are fast and big and you have a lot of players that can play fast. The quality of coaching is better in Georgia. Me personally, that’s a challenge for me. I like the bigger challenge, going up against better coaches in a cerebral game. That’s probably the biggest difference. But it’s still the south. It’s just as important here as it was in Gainesville, Florida, as it was in Deland, Florida.
InTucker: What’s the five year plan for this program? How quickly could we see success?
JT: Right away, right? Right away. Hopefully it continues and we continue to grow and, again, I just build on this tradition. I’m just here to help build.
InTucker: What are you doing this offseason with the players?
JT: COVID has made this very difficult. You take over the program, you don’t really have the kids in the day and it’s hard to build relationships with them and for them to get to know you.…It’s a challenge in this COVID era taking over a program when you don’t have your hands on the kids. The goal is to get everybody to know me over time. I think it’ll happen, just [over] a longer period. It would have [taken] a week or two in a normal year, now I think it’s probably going to take about two months.
InTucker: You’ve been spotted out at Fitzgerald Field talking to the parents of the younger kids. Why is that important?
JT: You’ve got to build those relationships, right? They’re coming here. They’ll be Tigers soon. So, it’s very important. I’ll say this, though, when you talk about community and, like I said, I value where I’m from and I want those kids to feel the same. I want them to represent Tucker and to really have pride in the City.
InTucker: College coaches are offering eighth and ninth graders scholarships. You can’t wait until eighth grade to start identifying talent. How early can you tell if a young man is going to be able to play in your program?
JT: (laughs) We used to joke about it. We could tell that if we saw the mom and dad get married, we could tell you if their kids would be something. So, genetics plays a big role in it and you can tell those traits early.
InTucker: Being from Florida, which professional team do you support?
JT: I’m a Dolphin fan, but I’m rooting for the Vikings for my uncle. Really, I just like football. It really is about the Magic, the Orlando Magic for me.
InTucker: You’ve been at the NFL level, the college level, now here you are at the high school level. Why high school?
JT: This is the truth, and sometimes it’s hard to believe, but this is where I belong. I’ve had opportunities to advance, but you can change a kid’s life at this level. I mean, a complete 180. You can change their life. When I was at college, I was assigned with the running backs. My goal was to get my running back [to increase their production]. So, it was different. The reward to me personally…it wasn’t as rewarding. The goal is to feel like I can help change lives here.
InTucker: What are the challenges of being a high school coach?
JT: I think everybody wants the best for their kids. Parents want the best for their kids, everybody wants what’s best, but not everybody knows the best path to take. So, educating is the most difficult challenge I think any high school coach faces.