The Magnolia State’s innovative initiative that amplifies the work of its best high school and middle school coaches completes Year One and readies itself for Year Two
Clinton, MS – (August 16, 2023) – Today, the Mississippi Excellence in Coaching Fellowship officially kicked off its second year of existence by holding the first session for the newly selected class of 25 coaches who have been identified as the state’s future leaders in amateur athletics. The Coaching Fellowship, also known as Tomorrow’s 25, is the idea of Dr. Hunter Taylor – a professor at the University of Mississippi (UM) who spent 10 years grinding it out as a basketball coach on the college and high school levels before joining the world of academia.
Taylor’s first job in education was actually teaching math at a middle school in Jackson Public Schools when he was asked by the principal to coach the boys basketball team. He agreed to do it, and they went on to win the City Championship.
“Once I had that experience, I was hooked,” said Taylor. “It was like I had found my calling.” His coaching career progressed over the ensuing years and included stops in Texas, Virginia, and Arkansas, before a teaching faculty position opened up at the University of Mississippi in its School of Education.
“My wife and I had just started a family, and we thought the University presented an opportunity to have a career in one place,” added Taylor. “I was grateful, but I still prayed and believed an opportunity might present itself where I could use my gifts and experiences in sports to make a special impact in education.”
In Year Five at UM, Johnny Mims was an answer to those prayers. Mims, who serves as the Executive Director of the Mississippi Association of Coaches (MAC), had been sent a video of a TED talk that Taylor had given with Oxford High School’s head football coach, Chris Cutcliffe. Titled “How to Build a Thick Institution” – the talk documents how Cutcliffe had invited Taylor in to help him redesign his football team’s off-season character development program. It then shares the three-year journey the duo spent investing in Cutcliffe’s players, ultimately culminating in their 2019 state championship for Class 6A. Mims immediately offered the duo a speaking slot on the final day of his annual Multi-Sports Clinic.
“Once we spoke at the clinic, I got to know Johnny and saw the heart he has for coaches and student-athletes across the state,” said Taylor. “He is a servant-leader, and it’s why coaches love him.”
After getting to know each other, Taylor presented an idea to Mims that he had been working on that would connect UM with the MAC and offer a one-of-a-kind opportunity for high school and middle school coaches. Mims was all in.
“Coaches have such a big role in our schools and influencing our future generation,” Mims said. “The more education our coaches can get through a program like this will only help our young girls and boys turn into great adults.”
Now they just needed funding.
Taylor first thought of Gary Dyksterhouse, a farmer in the Mississippi Delta who had served on an advisory board with Taylor for the Mississippi Teacher Corps – an alternate route teaching program that exclusively serves critical needs school districts. The two became fast friends due to Dyksterhouse’s previous experience as a college basketball coach before transitioning to work with his father-in-law, Walker Sturdivant, on their family farm. Not only did Dyksterhouse understand the world of coaching, but Taylor also knew and respected how passionate Gary and his entire family were about improving outcomes for students across the state. After learning about the program, and knowing the impact coaches had on their own lives, the Sturdivant family officially pledged an initial three-year gift that turned the idea into a reality.
Mims and Taylor then went to work identifying a five-person selection committee of master coaches from across the state to pick the first class. Once confirmed, the committee was given the following charge – identify the 25 top emerging coaches from across the state who have demonstrated competency, character, and commitment to their student-athletes and communities – and the class must also be diverse in gender, ethnicity, sport, and region.
Along the way, the Mississippi Excellence in Coaching Fellowship was given a nickname in order to reflect the prestige of the opportunity, and Woody Woodrick – a former Clarion-Ledger sports writer and current Murrah High School English teacher – came up with “Tomorrow’s 25.” Woodrick is also responsible for naming the state’s widely known annual preseason top 12 players list – “Dandy Dozen.”
Credibility was also enhanced tremendously when Rickey Neaves, the highly respected Executive Director of the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA), gave his organization’s endorsement by also partnering with the MAC and UM.
“We’re always going to do what is best for student-athletes and coaches,” said Neaves, “and we believe this fellowship is going to be a game-changer for our state.”
On August 17, 2022, the inaugural Tomorrow’s 25 class had its first session. Nine more monthly sessions followed that carried through the month of May. Each class sought to assist in three areas of growth for each candidate:
1. Coaching the Whole Athlete (Leadership, Resilience, Empathy, and Responsibility) – this portion was taught by Dr. Taylor with a curriculum that he created.
2. The opportunity to network with 24 of their peers who have demonstrated the capacity to be Mississippi’s future leaders in athletics.
3. And access to current leaders in the MHSAA, MAC, and college athletics – all with the goal of helping each candidate grow their spheres of influence in their communities and across the state.
Some highlights from the inaugural class include three state championship coaches, three promotions to head coaching positions, and countless others improving their team’s win totals from the previous season. Most importantly, at the completion of the fellowship year, all 25 candidates reported that the program helped them become better leaders, felt the training was relevant and applicable to their day-to-day work lives, and would recommend the experience to other coaches.
“This program elevates your professional network, improves your leadership abilities and personal development, and keeps you passionate about coaching,” said LaCambrise Pope of South Panola High School.
“I believe this will help coaches find an identity for themselves and their programs,” added Issac Boose of Oxford High School. “I really enjoyed this fellowship. This will be something that will be dear to me for the rest of my life.”
At the conclusion of Year One, Johnny Mims and Rickey Neaves were asked to share information about the Tomorrow’s 25 project at the National Federation of State High Schools Associations annual meeting; and Dr. Taylor and two of the participating coaches were invited to the Sports Leadership Institute’s Champions Summit, held inside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, to also share results from the Tomorrow’s 25 project. Representatives from other states were on hand for both presentations, and countless inquiries have ensued to learn about Mississippi’s innovative initiative.
“I really think we tapped into something special,” said Taylor. “And it all started with the question, ‘What if we gave an abundance of intellectual resources to the top 25 coaches in the state, truly invested in them in our fellowship sessions like they are the best of the best, and then got out of their way?’”
“We’ve never been more motivated than we are right now, and that’s because this model is working. I don’t know why it can’t work in other states too.”