by Torsheta Jackson
If Thomas Billups has changed, you cannot tell by watching.
Homecoming at “The “Loo” finds him in the signature arms-folded, scowl-faced stance he made famous during his 22 year stint as coach at powerhouse Lanier High School.
During an early timeout, Billups sends his captain to converse with a referee. When the player returns with an answer unsuitable to Billups, he is sent back: this time with orders to bring the ref to the huddle so the fiery coach can personally convey his thoughts on the officiating.
“This team is one of the best teams that I have had since I’ve been here. They’re hungry. They want to win,” Billups says proudly.
Now in his fourth year at NAIA member Tougaloo College (enrollment: 900), Billups’s Bulldogs are winning big. They won the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference (GCAC) going away and currently sit at No.4 in the NAIA Coaches poll.
It’s a familiar sight to most in Mississippi: a Billups-coached team playing at its ferocious best in late February. But success on the college stage was a long time coming.
Make a Mt. Rushmore for Mississippi high school hoops coaches and 66 year-old Thomas Billups is on it. He won 629 games, eight state titles and made 13 championship game appearances in 22 seasons on Maple Street. The inner-city battles between his Bulldogs, Luther Riley’s Provine Rams and Wayne Brent’s Callaway Chargers were at one point among the centerpieces of Mississippi sports.
(You can still walk in a Jackson barbershop almost any day and hear tales of crowds so large they were locked out or pepper sprayed or moved by the thousands to the biggest gym the city could find.)
After years of dominating the high school scene, there was no question that for these three storied coaches, college was the next stage.
But while Riley (Alcorn State) and Brent (Jackson State) soon got their shots as college head coaches, Billups did not.
“I had put two applications in at Jackson State. I had put two applications in at Alcorn. I had put two applications in at Mississippi Valley. I’m talking about the job was open. It was a vacancy,” Billups says.
Only not for Billups, who feels he was being overlooked.
“They told me that I didn’t have any college experience.”
Billups is controversial by nature. He coaches with a rough, disciplinary edge steeped in his rural Louisville roots, and was known to say exactly what was on his mind. His notoriety came not only from his win column, but his intensity with players. And it appeared that as accomplished as he was, the idea of Billups on a college sideline seemed a chance no one was yet willing to take.
Positions opened and closed with his application still on the desks of athletic directors.
And so Billups remained on the high school scene. He left Lanier in 2013 amidst a triangular firestorm involving district administration, teacher layoffs, and a school alumni base that backed him unconditionally.
When, according to Billups, the 22 year veteran of 629 wins and eight gold balls was ultimately told to complete an application for the job and he would be considered for an interview, it all proved too much.
“I called The Clarion Ledger and told them I was out. I told them I’m finished. That was that evening. The next morning I had three phone calls from schools who wanted me to come to coach for them,” Billups says.
He transitioned to Oak Grove High School and spent a year rebuilding a basketball program. His first year, the Warriors amassed a 14-15 record after winning 10 games in the previous year.
“It was a great year,” Billups recalls.
And at the end of that year, Billups got the call that he felt he should’ve gotten years before.
“Tougaloo called me at the end of I think it was June or July.” he says.
For him, it was the chance to prove himself.
In a raucous Kroger Gynasium, a.k.a. The Dawg Pound, that has become a barracks for the Bulldogs this season, the proof of Billups’s coaching prowess is on full display.
After releasing the official from the throws of his own huddle, Billups turns his ire to his players.
He exhorts his team, arms flying, to bust it. To get after it. To just play harder.
(Billups seems at his most comfortable and commanding, even charismatic, when he’s unhappy with his team – the familiar trait of famous disciplinarians like Larry Brown and Bobby Knight.)
Not long after, the Bulldogs retire to the locker room at halftime and return with the same fire that burns inside their coach – eventually overwhelming No.25 Dillard to a final score of 100-59. Two nights later, the Bulldogs smash Rust 107-73 to finish the regular season 25-4 overall and undefeated in their home gym.
Not only has Billups arrived on the college scene, he has done it his way. The Bulldogs bludgeon teams with relentless defensive effort and toughness, as much as talent. It’s the same approach that put so many trophies in the case on Maple Street.
“From high school to college you have to change…College is a little different and I have to ease up a little bit, but I still do my discipline.”
He continues, confidently, plainly: “I know how to deal with kids. I work so hard and that’s the main thing – hard work. Hard work and knowing what you’re doing on the basketball court. Those guys go in the gym and they leave everything on the floor for me. Those are the kinds of kids you love to coach. They know I will do anything for them,” he says.
Mostly, Billups just wants to win. And winning is the only consideration he has made about the next steps in his career right now. He maintains he isn’t bothered by being snubbed, though a feeling of vindication seems ever-present and on the surface.
“I really don’t care what people say cause I know I know basketball. That is one you can’t take away from me. I know that. I know how to work in the gym. I know how to get kids attention.”
With a shrug he adds, “I didn’t get mad at Jackson State; that was their loss. I didn’t get mad at Alcorn State; that was their loss.”
To Billups, his success – past and now, present — speaks for itself.
“A lot of people said I would never make it to college and other people said I was just a high school coach and I proved them wrong. They said I would never make it to the college level. But I’m here.”