For 35 seasons, Michael Thornton has anxiously paced the sidelines while being regularly animated, punctuated by his classic yelling in the name of hunting for a state championship title that has eluded the longtime successful coach.
It’s not uncommon to see basketball coaches lose it on the sidelines. But for Thornton, who has announced he’ll be retiring at the end of the season, it’s probably one of his signature characteristics about himself as a coach, as it reflects the intensity his teams have been known to feature.
“One of the things that coaching basketball all these years is that I have been fortunate enough to have a lot of really good girls,” Thornton said. “I just want mine to do the best that they can. If we lay it on the line, then that’s all you can ask of these kids. I think these girls lay it on the line for me. I’m very proud to be their coach.”
Thornton's winning ways continued on Tuesday night as his Purvis team improved its record to 22-1 and 7-0 in region play after dominating Columbia 63-36.
“People see him out on the court that he is always screaming, screaming, and screaming, but he believes in us,” Four-year starter Andee Robertson said. “It helps us have energy. Sometimes he’ll shout a little too much. Having him out there, it’s almost like he is a player. He’s in it.”
While Thornton jokingly admits that his sideline energy tires him out a little more compared to his early coaching days, for him, it’s a reflection as to how he played the game.
“He’s very passionate about basketball,” Senior Lillie Hale said. “He screams a lot, but that’s how he shows it, I think. If he can be out there with us, he would.”
Thornton, whose career record now stands at 656-371, built his winning reputation at Forrest County Agricultural High School. In 26 seasons, Thornton accumulated over 500 wins and led FCAHS to a state championship appearance.
After his contract was controversially not renewed at FCAHS, Thornton took on a new challenge with his once rival school of Purvis, which was a program that had experienced 14 straight losing seasons before his arrival.
“I remember when I was younger, I used to always come to (Purvis’) games,” Robertson said. “When I heard that he was going to be our coach, I actually went and watched him coach my cousins at Forrest County when I was younger. I was very excited to play for him.”
Now it comes as no surprise for Purvis’ senior class of Thornton’s retirement since he has told them since they were freshmen that they were the group that would close out his career. In the four seasons, his senior class has posted an 85-26 record, which includes an Elite Eight appearance.
“It’s always been kind of a thing that he has said that he was going to go out with us,” Leading scorer Elise Jackson said. “That was always kind of his plan. We’ve known and have been preparing.
“He’s not just our coach. He’s our mentor, and he’s our friend. I think if we don’t get as far as we wanted to, we could look back at this year see all the good things that came to us this year”.
Purvis’ Elite Eight appearance two seasons ago was the farthest the Lady Tornados had been since 1999 when the program reached the Final Four. Ironically, Purvis’ ‘99 team actually beat out Thornton’s FCAHS team that season.
But neither Thornton nor his team dwells on the pressure on the idea of riding off into the sunset, winning the Class 4A state championship. In fact, the Lady Tornados’ lone loss of the season against Oak Grove in a 38-28 contest helped take some of the pressure off, especially since in the last three seasons Purvis has started each year, 15-0, 17-0 and most recently 14-0.
“We are definitely playing harder, especially after our loss to Oak Grove,” Jackson said. “That pressure of being undefeated the entire year is off of our shoulders.”
Like his players, Thornton shares the sentiment of feeling no pressure in his final year. The only thing that Thornton dwells on is if his team were to get eliminated, not playing at their best.
“I just want (my team) to go out giving everything that they had, Thornton said. “It would haunt me if I coached a team that did not play hard and got beat because you’ll always wonder the what if. If you know that you did everything you could, then you can live with it. You just have to keep striving and trying to win each possession.
“It would be the icing on the cake to get to the state tournament with these girls. Win or lose, I am proud of all the accomplishments that they have helped turn this program around.”