An SEC nomad, Lance Thompson settles in at Auburn

AUBURN, Ala. -- When Lance Thompson sits down and begins to explain his recruiting philosophy, you get the sense that he could be anywhere in the world saying the very same thing. He could be wearing any team-issued polo. He could be talking about any head coach on any college campus.

"When I recruit," he says, "I just offer kids opportunities."

Thompson’s sales pitch has long been a successful one. Sharing his story of a life in football -- "How ball gave me a chance to go get an education, build a network that you’ll have for the rest of your life" -- he’s convinced countless high school recruits to believe in the same dream. By signing on the dotted line, they have followed his lead, wherever his feet were planted at the time.

That innate ability to recruit and then develop talent has allowed him to be employed for a long time in an unforgiving business. It’s what helped him cross lines in the Iron Bowl rivalry this offseason from Alabama to Auburn. Six years earlier, he made a similar move, switching sides in the rivalry of the Third Saturday in October, from Alabama to Tennessee. He’s been a part of four SEC programs, including a two-year stint at LSU, not to mention three seasons at Central Florida and two separate stops at Georgia Tech.

But on this day, the 50-year-old defensive assistant is setting down roots at Auburn, wearing a white windbreaker with an orange and blue embroidered "AU" over his heart. Speaking with reporters at a circular table with his legs crossed and slouching just enough to say, I’m comfortable, he says how he likes what coach Gus Malzahn stands for, how working under him is "an opportunity to grow professionally."

He never met Malzahn prior to his interview with Auburn, but he was a believer well before then. Last year’s Iron Bowl was convincing, he says.

"People say we had the best players, the best defensive players and the best defensive staff in the country," he says, harkening back to his time at Alabama. "He hung 630 yards on us and 40 points, and that was very humbling. They did a great job over there on the defensive side of the ball, but this guy has always been really difficult to defend. I think he’s cutting edge."

Smiling, he says, "The best thing I can say is we don’t have to prepare for him."

Though people on the outside might see things differently, he says switching sides from Alabama to Auburn hasn’t been uncomfortable.

"It’s just the nature of the business," he says. "People on the outside look at it and see different things. But on the inside, the parties involved, everybody understands why I made the decision and why it was a good decision for me."

But that’s where the intrigue lies. Because when Thompson left, there were reasons, albeit vague ones. One source said he didn’t have a choice to move on from Alabama. And when Alabama coach Nick Saban was asked, he gave something less than his full blessing.

"We’ve had several opportunities and given Lance several opportunities through the years and this same circumstance has occurred several times before and I can’t really tell you why coaches do what they do," Saban told reporters. "I think the best thing you can do is ask him, not me. We’ll do the best we can to find the best replacement for him. The guy did a good job when he was with us and we wish him well."

Thompson, for his part, is vague on how he arrived at Auburn. He says, "There were some personal things there, but at the end the day it’s an opportunity to grow professionally." At every turn, he’s grateful.

"Obviously Nick is a great coach," he says.

Asked about Lane Kiffin’s decision to return to Alabama for a second season, Thompson says he was "shocked" he stayed and "If I was an athletic director, I would hire Lane Kiffin in a heartbeat" to be a head coach.

But for now his attention is focused on Auburn, where he’s been reunited with defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who he coached with at LSU from 2002-03. Coaching linebackers again, Thompson says he’s been a "blessed guy."

It’s a mutual feeling at Auburn, where Malzahn boasted upon Thompson’s hiring that, "He's an outstanding coach and an outstanding recruiter who is very familiar with our state and the Southeastern Conference."

Dameyune Craig, who is both co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach at Auburn, had to be somewhat surprised when he heard the news. The two assistants had gone head-to-head over recruits in the Mobile, Alabama, region for years, with mixed results.

"I was like, 'Lance? Are you serious? I hate Lance,'" Craig says jokingly. "Nah, I’m just kidding. I was excited. Lance has done as outstanding job as a coach, as a recruiter. He’s a very intelligent guy. He’s an excellent coach. He’s a great teacher.

"It definitely helps us now. People talk about the recruiting side of it, but Lance is a great coach and it’s been fun coaching against these guys."

Swapping stories and getting the other side of recruiting battles has been fun, Craig says, whether it was Thompson wearing Alabama crimson, Tennessee orange or LSU purple and gold. In any incarnation, he’s been able to sell an opportunity and earn a living in football. Craig, who has the same zeal for recruiting, says the two “jab each other all the time” about who won and lost each coveted prospect.

"But I still won’t give Lance my connections now," Craig says with a laugh.

It's funny, given the circumstances.