Nate Thompson never stopped thinking about Conway during all those drives.
From his home there to Carvers Bay High School, nearly two full decades worth — more if you count the two years he spent at Choppee. Thirty-five minutes each way. Every day.
It gave him plenty of time to think.
Through good times or tough at Carvers Bay, he wondered what it would be like to return to his alma mater, the place where he first built his reputation while working under Chuck Jordan.
Thompson doesn’t wonder anymore.
On Friday, the longtime head coach will spend another Conway playoff game on a once-familiar sideline as an assistant, responsible only for one relatively small part of a squad that leans on his experience much more than that of typical position coaches.
“The coaching staff is a little different. The coaching techniques are a little different. But coaching is coaching,” said Thompson, the Tigers’ defensive line coach. “Coming back to the school and realizing it’s a little bit different, the teachers are different. I taught [some of] them.”
That goes for the two men who now serves as Thompson’s superiors under the normal hierarchy of a football team. Both head coach Carlton Terry and defensive coordinator Kelly Andreucci played and coached under Thompson during his first stint as a Tigers’ assistant.
Thompson, who was one of Jordan’s first hires in 1983, worked on the defensive line before being bumped up to the defensive coordinator job. And now he’s right back where he started, coaching one unit.
“I don’t see it as being his boss. I see it as a great working relationship and him being a great sounding board whenever I have questions or issues,” Terry said. “It’s good to have him on board to give me some clarity and confirmation.”
Terry’s faith in Thompson is anything but misplaced.
In August, it was announced Thompson would a member of the 2019 Hall of Fame class for the South Carolina Football Coaches Association. That came after he went 169-66 in 19 seasons at Carvers Bay, leading the Bears to two state championships and three runner-up finishes. Conversely, he had only four seasons with a losing record.
During the farewell tour last year — Thompson had already announced he was leaving at the end of the season — Terry was consistently reminding Thompson that he had a job waiting for him back at Conway.
“It was a no-brainer for me. When I heard that he was going to retire, I called him and told him I would do whatever it takes to get him to work with us,” Terry said. “If I needed to blackmail him, I would do that, too.”
Without divulging any potential skeletons in the closet, Terry got his man.
Part of the sales job was who Thompson would be working with.
Behind ends Tonka Hemingay and Tim Shelton and tackles Andy Jordan and Tate Finklea, Thompson was going to have a unit unlike anything he’d ever seen at Carvers Bay. The chance to coach a top-flight college prospect and some other likely college players was too much to pass up. In return, that group was going to get about as seasoned position coach as they could have ever hoped for.
“We talk about it every day,” said Hemingway, who is verbally committed to the University of South Carolina. “He’s been coaching a long time. … He has a lot of experience. He’s doing a lot to get us to that next level.”
Hemingway said players frequently follow the ever-smiling Thompson’s lead, trying to have as much fun as possible while accomplishing the serious part of the game. It allows them to grow, and Terry said that Hemingway’s overall technique, specifically gap integrity, has improved immensely just since Thompson joined the staff.
Overall, the defense has made some strides, too. After going 0-4 and allowing 29 points per game in the non-region slate, the Tigers went 3-2 and allowed four points fewer during the region games. It allowed them to earn a second-place finish in Region VI-5A and earn a home playoff game.
Home-field advantage was something Thompson was used to at Carvers Bay. He doesn’t shy away from the politics that ebbed and flowed with the team’s success. Nor does he talk down about his 21 years coaching in Georgetown County.
Either way, remember how he got to where he is now included another transition.
Learning how to not do as much.
“I had to adjust to not washing clothes, fixing helmets, overlooking the B team,” Thompson said. “I wanted to go somewhere where there wasn’t a whole lot of political pressure. I just wanted to go somewhere where I could just go have fun.”
Thompson hasn’t ruled out a potential return to a head coaching job. With an easy five-minute drive to work, though, he’s thinking about theoretical futures less and less.