Clarion Ledger Article - Knight moves Sumrall to top
December 30, 2010By Richard Thompson of Sumrall High School
It was 2006. Knight had just coached Hattiesburg High to a state title, his fourth in his 13 seasons as head coach. But his oldest son Austin, a promising baseball player, was finishing the seventh grade at Oak Grove.
Thus, Knight's dilemma.
"I'm not going to be able to watch him play unless I make a decision either to get out of coaching or to get to a place where he can come and play for me," Knight recently recalled. "At that time, this job came open."
So Knight moved from Hattiesburg to Sumrall, stepping down in classification from 5A to 3A - but remaining in the baseball-crazy Pine Belt. What followed was remarkable: three straight state titles starting in 2008 and USA TODAY's national title that followed a 35-1 team this year.
Knight was also named coach of the year on USA TODAY's all-American team, a lofty honor for a small-town Mississippi coach.
For leading a mid-sized Mississippi school in a small town to national recognition, Knight is one of The Clarion-Ledger's Sportsmen of the Year for 2010.
Only 1,425 people live in Sumrall, its small Main Street dividing a couple of blocks of storefronts south of where Highway 589 intersects with Highway 42 at a four-way stop. Ask for a good lunch spot in town and it's likely to be the local Subway, which has fast food competition in town only from a branch of the ever-present small-town Mississippi burger joint Ward's.
So it took an August trip to San Diego, where Knight coached in the Aflac All-American Classic, for the national renown to sink in. There, fresh off his team being named national champions, fellow coaches would ask Knight if he was the coach from Sumrall.
"Hearing folks in San Diego talk about it, those times, it sinks in," Knight said. "... It's been really amazing just to think about a small town like this has been able to get the attention that we have. It's really neat."
By definition, Knight is not a native Mississippian, having been born in Ruston, La. But by every other metric, he is a Mississippian. His family moved to Hattiesburg when he was 2 years old and he hasn't gone very far away since.
Knight was a talented baseball player who went to William Carey College in 1983 after graduating from Hattiesburg High. He played professionally for two years in the Atlanta Braves organization before an injury forced him into coaching.
His first job was as an assistant at Petal from 1991-93; his first Petal team won a state title. He took over as the head coach at Hattiesburg prior to the 1994 season - and delivered a state title in his first season.
At Hattiesburg, he coached the likes of future professionals Craig Tatum, John Lindsey and Jermaine Van Buren. Second sons, sure. But when Knight's first-born approached playing age, his successful career took a backseat.
"It would have been very tough coaching somewhere not seeing him play," Knight said. "And I seriously thought about getting out of coaching just so I could see him. Either stay in teaching or do something else. That worked out. God put me in this situation, opened up this door for me and it's been just a tremendous, tremendous time here."
Sumrall was a playoff team in the year prior to Knight's arrival, but their play did not foreshadow what was to come.
Knight credits a strong staff, booster support and an uncanny amount of baseball talent in the community for fueling Sumrall's run. But it's also indicative of the blue-collar area, which only recently has started to grow as a bit of a bedroom community to Hattiesburg, 20 miles to the southeast.
"They've either been part of a construction, contracting family, and have gotten out and they understand the importance of hard work," Knight said.
Knight said his program does things differently, one example being the unorthodox strength and conditioning program that assistant coach Steve Cooley coordinates.
That he has autonomy to do what he wants there is a testament to Knight, Cooley said.
"He delegates," Cooley said. "He's a very good leader. He's someone that I look up to as far as the coaching profession."
In the days that followed Sumrall's third straight state title, Cooley, with Knight's approval, made drastic changes in the team's conditioning regimen. It wasn't because the old way didn't work, either. It's deeper than that.
"He does a great job of making sure we don't get complacent," Cooley said.
Both coaches hope it pays off with a fourth straight state title in 2011. Two current Sumrall players have signed college letters of intent and Knight thinks three or four will join that number by season's end.
Obviously, Knight and Sumrall are reloading. "We'll be disappointed if we're not playing for (another state title)," he said.
But Knight also knows he's 45 years old and Austin, the son who initially fueled the move to Sumrall, is graduating this year. Then, another family quandary: He'll have to juggle his time coaching Sumrall and middle son Alex with watching Austin play in college.
As for coaching first-grade son Andrew at Sumrall? No promises, he said.
"We're just going to kind of see what's out there," Knight said, "but from my standpoint over the next five years, I see myself here."