There’s not just one reason for Tompkins’ exceptional turnaround this season.
One can point to turf-burning junior running back R.J. Smith and a stout offensive line of Justice Cardenas, Cameron McEntire, David Peterson, Santiago Bohlmann and Hayden Burke that pace a dynamic run game that produces 277.6 rushing yards per game. It can also be said that a defense that has surrendered just 22 points per game and compiled 26 takeaways is the reason.
In reality, all the above has been a boon to Tompkins producing the best turnaround in Texas high school football this year, going from 0-9 last year to 10-2 heading into Saturday’s Class 6A, Division II regional semifinal against Beaumont West Brook at NRG Stadium. But at the crux of the Falcons’ rise from the hunted to hunter is second-year head coach Todd McVey.
McVey took over Tompkins in January 2017 after serving as assistant athletic director for Katy ISD since 2009. The Falcons did not win a game during his initial, Hurricane Harvey-shortened season.
Tompkins is McVey’s third head coaching job, and it can be argued potentially a redemptive one after his first two gigs at McKinney (2003-2006) and Harker Heights (2007-2008) produced a combined overall record of 19-41.
However, McVey is adamant that taking the Tompkins job had nothing to do about making up for that.
“It wasn’t about proving anything as much as a gut feeling,” McVey said. “I’ve learned to trust my gut, and my gut was this. If it didn’t work out, it didn’t work out.
“As I’ve gotten older, it’s not about me anymore. It’s about providing the best atmosphere we can for these kids to have success. What matters now is what happens 10 years from now. This is fun and games right now. But when they’re husbands and bringing back their kids to visit the program, that’s where we’re going to see the true effect of our program. I want them to be successful businessmen, husbands, good friends, good people, be of character. Pay it forward, I guess? Eventually they’ll be affecting someone else’s life.”
There was an eight-year hiatus between Harker Heights and Tompkins for McVey. During that time, while working in athletic administration, he was able to visit the rest of the football programs in Katy ISD and watch how those coaches went about leading young men.
McVey has learned to embrace voices other than his. It’s what he says is his biggest change as a coach. He has willingly accepted input and leaned on assistant coaches who have state championship experience, like defensive coordinator Eric Robinson and defensive backs coach William Walker, and others who have been around great programs, like offensive coordinator Mark Hopkins, formerly of North Shore.
McVey said last year was about getting acquainted with a staff of coaches whom he had never worked with. This season’s success is representative of all their ideas and suggestions being pieced together to formulate a winning environment.
It’s apparent during practices. McVey lets his coaches teach and run drills. He stands back and observes, airhorn and practice schedule in hand, and offers his thoughts whenever he feels necessary.
“As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve learned to listen better,” McVey said. “I have some talented coaches on my staff and I’ve done a better job of listening to them on some really good ideas. It really is about all of us coming together and putting our minds together, an ego-less room. It really is about making this program better for the kids.”
“Letting coaches coach” is something McVey said he has done differently this time at Tompkins than he had in the past. He also said he has better patience, willing to see if kids will work through their own problems before he steps in.
He implemented a rigorous boot camp during the offseason that tested the physical and mental boundaries of players. It wasn’t fun, sophomore quarterback Jalen Milroe said. But what it did was manufacture buy-in.
Players learned to trust and rely upon those around them because they went through a hellacious, demanding spring and summer together.
“Since the offseason, it’s been about buy-in with him,” junior offensive lineman Hayden Burke said. “We had a workout called a buy-out, where if you didn’t do it, you’d get in trouble. So, you had to complete it in order to buy-in and not get into trouble. Stuff like that was hard, as well as a boot camp that pushed us, but it really taught us to buy-in to each other and this team. If you weren’t bought-in, it showed. Everyone came together.”
While McVey may allow his coaches free rein during practices, there is no question he is at the forefront of the culture and message he wants sent from his program.
Preaching selflessness, McVey is careful with words and overbearing with support. Players appreciate him and play hard for him.
“He believes in all of us,” Milroe said. “He believes in our talents, and his big thing is making sure we have confidence in this team and confidence in our own selves.”
It’s paid off. Tompkins started this season 5-0 and never let up.
In January, when the team met following the Christmas and New Year break to discuss goals and expectations for the upcoming season, McVey was direct with his players.
“There’s only one (program) at this school that hasn’t gotten it done yet,” said McVey, referring to a program that had produced five total wins in four years. “It’s us.”
And that’s where the road to respectability began.
Burke said players are aware of the history Tompkins is riding, producing another chapter in their legacy with each win after already earning the program’s first trip to the postseason. Still, they keep pushing. They want more.
McVey reiterates the sentiment.
“I tell them we’ll talk about all we’ve done at the banquet,” McVey said. “Right now, it’s about today. I want to be focused on these seniors that have been here and been through these hard times and now they’re reaping the rewards.”
And it’s that compassion that has the Falcons feeling unstoppable.
“He loves us,” Burke said. “He tells us every single day. Even when he rips into us, he tells us, ‘I’m not getting at the person, I’m getting at the number.’ He tells us all the time he loves us, and the big thing is we know he does.”