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Randy Hollis: Thompson trying to turn Tigers' program around for all the right reasons

OGDEN — When Erik Thompson made the somewhat startling announcement last December that he would be leaving Northridge High, where he'd been a highly successful football coach for 19 years, to take over Ogden High's program, a lot of folks — including me — couldn't help but question his sanity.

After all, as a head coach, he'd guided his Northridge teams to a 78-60 overall record and 10 state playoff berths in 13 seasons, and his future seemed safe and secure there.

Yet, he chose to get out of his comfort zone and decided to take the job at Ogden High, which has been a coaching graveyard for the last decade and a half.

No, on the surface, it didn't make much sense to most of us.

But it did to Thompson, and that's really all that matters. He sensed that, at Ogden High, with its many inner-city kids and challenging socioeconomic issues that most schools in Utah rarely deal with, he could make a dynamic difference. He would now have a rewarding opportunity to make a huge, positive impact on the lives of many young men who desperately needed it.

All good high school coaches will tell you that it's about much more than football; it's also about teaching valuable, long-term life lessons that will help young men learn the importance of hard work, dedication, teamwork and sacrifice.

And, hopefully, at Ogden, he could help lift a struggling program that had fallen on very tough times, in a proud high school community where sports success was needed and, at times, sorely lacking.

The Tigers enter this season with a 33-game losing streak, and things got so bad that, over the last couple of years, the program pulled out of its assigned Utah High School Activities Association region and played an independent schedule because it could not be competitive. And, still, the losses mounted.

Now, though, there is hope. Thompson's energy and enthusiasm have brought renewed hope to a program that desperately needed it.

"I definitely feel that there's something special brewing with this group, especially the seniors," Thompson said. "Can you imagine having never won a football game? In fact, I was told they've won one JV game in the last three years and no varsity games. How challenging is that?

"But you can imagine for them to stick with football and then to go all in, and to have a belief that we can do this, I'm just really impressed with the character of these kids. And when you count JV and varsity, you've gone like 60 games and you've won one, they're very hungry and humble and ready to go to work, and they want badly to make this community proud and prove to people around here that, hey, we can win football games and we've got value over here.

"So I'm excited to coach a group of kids like that," he said. "And really, in my career, I was looking for that, that was a perfect fit for me. Those are the kids I want to coach. I feel that I've kinda been an underdog my whole life, so I relate with these guys. They've bought in, and I definitely feel like there's a strong sense of unity and family here. They feel like, 'Hey, no one believes in us but us, so let's go do this together, let's do this right, and we can do this."

It was difficult for the coach to leave Northridge, a school he dearly loved and called home for nearly two decades. He still lives in the Northridge community and goes to church there, has many close, longtime friends there, and will always hold the Knights in a special place of his heart.

But it was time for a change and a new challenge, and he's certainly found that at Ogden High.

"This was more about being a good fit for what I want to do in my career right now," Thompson said, "building something and working together with kids that maybe people thought not much of, and now let's go prove 'em wrong.

"A lot of times people focus on the negative parts of Ogden High football. But I think there's so many built-in, great things here. We've got great facilities, and this community is like Chicago Cubs fans — they love their Ogden High football. They show up in droves for the games, they cheer loud for 'em, the student body is amazing … and they're really proud of Ogden High.

"I think there's some great advantages here," he said. "There's a lot of kids that have talent around here that just haven't been playing football, and now we're just trying to find them and reach out to them and to get them to come out."

To be sure, turning the Tigers' program will be quite a challenge. Sure, they haven't been to the state playoffs since 2011 and haven't had a winning season since 2009, but it goes much deeper than that.

Over the last 15 years, Ogden High has won a total of just 32 games — an average of little more than two wins per season. In five of those seasons, the Tigers went winless. In seven other seasons, they won three games or less. Between 2002 and 2016, OHS had just one winning season — a 6-4 record in 2009 — and won more than three games in a season only three times over that span.

The Ogden program faces a great deal of adversity — kids who come from extreme poverty, broken homes and single-parent families, kids with eligibility problems, drug issues and failing grades. Many of them need to work to help support their family's budget, some simply can't afford to play. And some suffer from apathy, brought on by years of needing something to belong to and not fitting in.

"There are times you kinda feel like you are a kid's dad, and you develop a closer relationship with the kids than maybe you do at other places," Thompson said. "Honestly, this football team is like the family to a lot of these kids, like they don't go home but they stay here and they hang out instead. They love each other, they want to be a part of something, and I think there's some great strength that can come from that.

"And I definitely think these kids, I mean, you grow up in Ogden, I think inherently you're maybe a little tougher than other kids and things may be a little harder for you. And I think that football's a great sport to harness that toughness. … And we're really trying to concentrate on that, not only physical toughness but mental toughness, and I think that's a talent that these kids already have. And now just try to steer it in the right direction and teach 'em some football.

"I want to be an example to them, and I want to be a part of these kids' lives," Thompson said. "Unlike so many other sports, having that bond and that feeling of family is really important in football. Loving and caring about your teammate and fighting hard for 'em is right up there with the importance of height, weight and speed. One of the advantages that we can definitely have here is there's gonna be a sense of family and these kids care about each other, and hopefully maybe they play a little bit harder because of it."

Thompson was never the biggest, strongest or fastest athlete, but he worked so hard to improve his talent that he wound up playing college football.

"I played all three sports in high school and I loved 'em all, but I think football's the toughest and I think you grow the most when things are hard, by doing hard things," he said. "I think it's one of the sports where it's hard to be a superstar and really you can't be a one-man show because everyone's relying on everyone else to do their job, too, and I think there's something beautiful about that.

"It's not about wins and losses; it's about how you define what your best is, and you come with that standard and then we're gonna work to reach that standard every day. And it's not so much about what we're gonna accomplish but how. You can control the how — how you play every day, what's your standard, where you're going to hold yourself accountable to. Can you look yourself in the mirror and say, 'I did that not only for me but because I care about my teammate and my coach,' and vice versa?

"And if everyone's doing that — hey, here's my standard and I'm holding myself to it — I think special things can happen here. And I'm excited to see how far that can lead us. … Someday these kids can hopefully look themselves in the mirror afterward and say 'I set the standard for myself what my best is, I reached that and it equaled this many wins and I was deserving of that, and I feel great about my experience at Ogden High. And I'm gonna move on and be a good father, a good son, go on a mission, go to school, get a great job,' whatever the case may be.

"There's a lot of kids on this team that are the too poor, too slow, the too whatever that don't think you can get something done, and I felt most of my life that I was maybe one of those guys, too," Thompson said. "So we're ready to go do this together and we'll see what happens. … You watch 'SportsCenter' at night and I promise you every single day, somewhere, a high school team, college or pro, somewhere, somebody's gonna do something that no one felt like they could do. And why not us?"

Still, all things considered, though winning won't be impossible, it will be awfully darned difficult. And that's what makes the possibilities of having success there all the more rewarding.

"Definitely, when you come play Ogden High now, I promise you that we're going to line up right, they're gonna be coachable, they care about each other and they're gonna play hard," Thompson said. "And if you beat us, you're gonna definitely feel like hey, that was a hard-fought football game.

"I don't know how many games we can win … but I do know these kids are excited and they feel like they can win. And I think that that's an important part right now that there's definitely a belief that if we do what we're supposed to do, we line up right, we play hard, we're prepared, we do all the things coach asks us to do, that we can win football games. How many those are and where they come, I don't know.

"It's gonna be a lot of hard work. My vision is that it can be done, I believe that the kids' vision is that it can be done, too, and now it's time to go to work," he said. "I don't know how long that it'll take. But when I come home at night, I'm exhausted but just feel such joy like hey, it's definitely worth it. I love what I'm doing, I love being with these kids.

"Yeah, it's a lot of hard work and maybe there's things I didn't have to do that I took for granted at Northridge that we had to get started over here. But there are definitely no regrets about coming here, and hopefully I'll have 19 more years over here at Ogden."

Here's hoping that Thompson and the Tigers turn things around soon and find the tremendous success these young men are striving for — on and off the field.