- Adam C. Brooks
Coach Thompson: Adding ‘Hall of Honor’ to a half-century of achievements
by Ginger Broomes, Orange County Reporter
This Saturday, January 28th, the Southeast Texas Coaches Association will be inducting four coaches into their Hall of Honor. One of those inductees will be West Orange Stark’s former head football coach Cornel Thompson.
Thompson, who has been called the most accomplished high school football coach in the state of Texas, retired in 2022, after 51 years of coaching. His retirement may have come with a sigh of relief from some rival coaches, and a groan of disappointment from fans, but even in his retirement, Coach Thompson still bleeds blue.
“It’s been a good run. I really enjoyed it,” Thompson said. “It’s been fun. I’d coached kids, then their kids and when I started coaching their grandkids, it was about time.”
Time now to focus on family. Together with his right-hand of 35 years, his wife Frances, they have four grown children and thirteen grandchildren, all involved in sports and located everywhere from Little Rock, Arkansas to Katy, Texas. Thompson said football has always been a family affair at his house: he coached sons Marcus, Chad, and Michael at WOS, and daughter Nikki was a cheerleader there.
Time now, too, to give his wife a break.
“Frances has been with me through thick and thin. Traveled with me from Maine to Mexico, state championships, scrimmages, highlights and the lowlights. So it was time for me to step aside and spend some time with her.”
“West Orange Stark is home. And I’m not sure I was ready to retire when I did. I still got the fire in my belly. Watch football, talk football. People coming to the house wanting to talk football. But it was time for me to spend time with my family.”
Since retirement, there’s still football, family, and Longhorns. Not the team, but the cattle he and Frances have raised since 2009, when they built their home in Orange.
Thompson’s kept busy too with “West Orange Stark Football: A Way of Life” - the book he’s writing, the stories spanning his entire career, going back to 1970-71 when he began his career in Kirbyville. He is now working on chapter ‘2015’, writing memories on legal pads while Frances types and edits.
And now there is the Hall of Honor, an achievement Coach Thompson said has been on his bucket list.
A self-described ‘emotional guy’, he hopes he can give his acceptance speech ‘without bawling’, Especially when he sees all the former coaches and former players - eighty of whom, so far, have said they’d be in the audience.
“I don’t know that the gravity of it - being recognized by your peers - has hit me yet. It’s a big deal.”
Another bucket list item of Thompson’s is the State Hall of Fame, something he realized he wanted when he took former WOS head coach Dan Hooks to be inducted there. Thompson says that may or may not ever happen for him.
“They only have two high school coaches a year,” he said.
But another item on his list was also realized - to talk at the football clinic at San Angelo, where he’s been going since 1978. About four years ago, he got his chance. And Frances had never heard him speak.
“She slipped into the auditorium with about 2000 coaches registered there, a full house up to the rafters. She had our oldest son Marcus and my grandson, and they heard me speak. And that was a big deal to me.”
The recognition from the Southeast Texas Coaches Association is made more special to Thompson because here, in southeast Texas, is where more pro-athletes originate than from anywhere else in the US. And Thompson had coached many of them.
As head coach for Palestine one year, he had a tailback named Adrian Petersen. Back at WOS, he had coached Deionte Thompson, Kevin Smith, Earl Thomas and more.
But it’s not just the ones turned pro he remembers. “A lot of the players I remember and hold in high esteem, one of those guys is a little guy named Bobby Frazier, in the early 80s. He was an undersized linebacker, we played PNG, and he got in a fight the following night and came to school with his eyes swollen shut. Looked like a raccoon.
“And the next Friday night, with a broken nose, and a special facemask we got him, he made fifteen tackles against Vidor. Tough kid. He was a kid who would’ve never played pro ball. We’ve got so many of them.”
Thompson recalled coaching another kid named Dwayne Young, who now owns a business in Phoenix, Arizona.
“Broke his thumb, was a backup linebacker but starting center, and had a hairline fracture of his ankle. Heavily taped that ankle and we were fixing to play a state championship game, and he said to me, ‘I’m not missing it. Tape it up’. He played forty-eight minutes as a center.”
Another memory sticks out: “The 3-0 game in Jasper in 1987, with 51 seconds, both of us rated 1 and 2 in the state. A little lawyer (now) named Russell Turkel walked down there, kicked one through the uprights, and that was the only score of the game. Kevin Smith was the holder.”
As the winningest all-time program in the state of Texas - a title only received with a 80.6% winning percentage and at least 500 games played, West Orange Stark hadn’t reached that plateau until 2018 when the Mustangs played their 500th game, which put them number one. Coach Thompson’s overall winning percentage was 85%.
What’s the key to winning? For Thompson, it’s been a family affair here in Orange. It can be tough balancing coaching with home life, which is why he’s involved Frances and their family with the football program. He encourages young coaches to do the same. Frances went to scrimmages, ran concession stands on game night. She was so involved that, to this day, players refer to her as ‘Momma T’.
There was also a generation of kids who knew what to expect, from uncles, fathers who’d played for WOS before.
“I had great coaches, teachers, father figures, players around me. People just thought we had phenomenal players more than anybody else. No. We worked with our guys. Football season started in January for us, and culminated at the end of the year in what we hoped was the state championship or the playoffs. 24/7 all year.”
Thompson is constantly running into former players, all now grown men. They stop him in places like Boot Barn when he’s out with his wife just to say hi and that they’d never forgotten him. And he’s never forgotten them.
“I’m so vain that I don’t want people to forget about me and that makes me feel good that I made a mark.”
Looking at his career statistics, it’s a no-brainer to see Coach Cornel Thompson deserves to be in the Hall of Honor. Yet, it’s not just winning seasons that make an unforgettable man.
“We spent time developing our kids. I’m just the guy receiving the credit. I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by some outstanding folks, and that’s been the key to my success. I teach football and discipline and teach kids how to act. And the practice field is my classroom.”
One of his most treasured items in his large room of hundreds - if not thousands - of pieces of memorabilia, is a large book given to him in his 40th year of coaching. Collected by Frances, the book overflows with letters that former players wrote to him, and in those letters were the words they couldn’t say to him as kids, but could say now.
There’s also the giant banner Frances had made for him when the WOS Mustangs played their 500th game. It’s already filled with hundreds of signatures from former players, and had hung in his workroom in the WOS fieldhouse, and it will be at the Hall of Honor induction, awaiting more signatures from former coaches and players. It will also be on the back cover of his book, which he hopes will be published by Fall.
“I didn’t realize how good we’ve been until I started writing this book. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, and after I retired, it hit me: we were pretty dang good.
“It’s those types of rewards where you are developing young men into solid citizens, fathers, husbands, boyfriends. And that’s one thing that I hope they will remember me for. That I made an impact on their life.”
The Southeast Texas Coaches Association Hall of Honor ceremony will be noon tomorrow, Saturday, January 28 at the MCM Elegante.