Most new head coaches don’t get a standing ovation when they take over a program, but Keith Thompson is different.
A 2006 graduate of Monache High School, Thompson has been a part of the football community in Porterville for decades. On Tuesday, after nearly 10 years since he began his coaching career, Thompson was named Porterville High’s new head varsity football coach.
“Yesterday I came out, there was a big -- they gave me a standing ovation, so it was nice,” Thompson, 32, said.
Thompson has led the Panthers summer workouts ever since they began on July 1, but having everything become official made him happy.
“They let me take the lead since we started so just getting the official word that I’m the official guy kind of made me happy, made my family happy,” he said. “And then the community’s been supporting me so I’ve got a lot of support from the community so far.”
Selecting Thompson as the next head coach of the Panthers was an easy decision according to PHS athletic director Brian Hill.
“We feel he was the best guy for the job," Hill said. "He’s got a lot of experience and we feel he’s going to be around a long time to build the program, and not looking to leave and stuff because his family (is) here and everything. And he's a quality guy. So that's why we went with him. We thought he was the best fit for the job."
Both Thompson and his older brother, James Sanders, played football for Monache. A standout at Fresno State, Sanders was drafted in the fourth round of the 2005 NFL draft by the New England Patriots. He spent six of his eight years in the NFL with the Patriots and played in Super Bowl XLII.
Thompson played running back for the Marauders then attended Bakersfield College where he was a cornerback. He joked he was too slow for BC to play running back. “Wasn’t fast enough, I guess,” he said. “I don’t know. They just decided that I was a better corner. And I’m glad they did because I ended up getting a scholarship out of it.”
That scholarship was to the University of Montana, an NCAA Division I program.
After playing for the Grizzlies, Thompson came home and started his coaching career at Monache in 2010. In that time he also got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from National University. He is going to teach ninth-grade English for Porterville as well.
Thompson takes over at PHS after three-year head coach, Michael Machado, left to run Mission Oak’s program in late June. The Panthers are coming off back-to-back winning seasons and appearances in the CIF Central Section Division IV playoffs. Overall they went 8-5 in 2019 and 8-3 in 2018 with a 3-2 East Yosemite League record in both years.
Thompson coached the defensive backs for Porterville in 2017 and his leadership as the team’s defensive coordinator for the past two seasons is one of the reasons behind the team’s success. However, he’ll be passing that role on to coach Larry Herrera.
“I’m going to focus a little more on the offensive side of the ball, not (as offensive coordinator) but I’m going to kind of move around a little bit,” Thompson said. “So coach Herrera will be our defensive coordinator.”
Thompson said his coaching staff will remain mostly the same with a few future changes, but the new offensive coordinator is Ruben Rodriguez. He was the head coach and offensive coordinator for junior varsity last season.
With his hiring, Thompson became the only Black head coach in Tulare County and the first many can even think of in almost two decades. Thompson said he didn’t see many Black head coaches growing up and as the number of Black students increases in the area, he wanted to show others that reaching this position was possible.
“Just the fact that there hasn’t been one was a big deal to me,” Thompson said. “I mean it wasn’t the reason that I applied but it was part of the reason that I wanted to apply. Just to get that going.”
Although he’s a graduate of his team’s rival school, Thompson said it's a non-factor and he's just about mentoring athletes from the community he grew up in.
“With me it’s just about helping the kids. So it doesn’t matter if it’s at Monache, Granite (Hills), Porterville; I just wanted to help the kids out,” he said. “That was my main thing.”
If it weren’t for COVID-19, Thompson would’ve been less than a week from starting to get ready for the 2020 season. But since the Central Section announced the season won’t be starting until Dec. 14 because of COVID-19, Thompson and the Panthers will have plenty of time to get ready.
“We’ve always looked at it as just stay ready,” Thompson said. "So whenever the season started, we were going to be ready. We’re so young right now that the season being pushed back is actually a positive for us. We’re getting time to teach fundamentals, to insert our offense and defense. We’re looking at it as a positive.”
So far the team’s looking good with senior leadership and promising young guys, according to Thompson. They also already have a goal in mind.
“As far as on the football field, our goal is always to win EYL -- compete in EYL,” Thompson said. “That’s our first goal and then we’ll see what happens after that.”
Editor's Note: Part of athletic director's Brian Hill's quote was left off in the print version of the story.