Nothing can stop Mike Thornton. He knows what he wants.
Many of his peers advised against taking the vacant women’s basketball head coaching job at Orange Coast College in 1989.
They told him he wouldn’t succeed. They thought he wasn’t good enough.
Twenty-nine years, 917 games, 584 wins, 23 postseason appearances and a state championship later, Thornton has earned the right to be called one of the most successful head coaches in OCC history, something he had wanted since the start.
“I honestly knew I was going to be a coach in the fifth-grade. I have come to live my dream,” Thornton said. “I’m sure glad that when those people told me not to take this job that I took it. This is where I wanted to be.”
With an unwavering passion for sports, Thornton’s devotion to his family and players has sprouted his most cherished moments, while impacting the lives of hundreds of young men and women.
After 45 years of coaching high school and college athletics, Thornton has decided to retire.
“The thing I like the most is the players,” Thornton said. “The relationships with the players and my coaches is what I’m going to miss the most.”
Thornton could’ve stopped coaching after receiving six stents in his heart, or after he suffered a stroke six years ago, or after he was diagnosed with diabetes last summer.
But his love for basketball is unmatched, many times inspiring his players to follow their dreams.
He has sent 80 players to four-year universities, 12 of whom have gone on to Division I schools, an immeasurable feat in the volatile and ever-changing world of junior college athletics.
Thornton’s thoughtful and candid approach to basketball transcends the bounds of the court.
“He cares about us as a team, but also as individuals on and off the court,” OCC sophomore forward Sydney Driggs said. “He wants us to succeed in life, in sports and in school. Whatever we are passionate about he supports.”
As a young Chicago Cubs fan in his hometown of Danville, Illinois, Thornton was a three-sport athlete. He admits he was best at baseball, but still treasured playing football and basketball.
He moved to California after his hometown threatened to shut down his high school athletics program. Playing basketball under the wing of his coaching inspiration, Phil DelaPorte, helped him foster the essential tools to become a meaningful head coach.
At a California Angels game, 13 years after he began his coaching career at Santa Ana High School in 1970, one of his former players approached him in the stands.
David Wolsey was a senior on Thornton’s team at Santa Ana in 1975. He remembered his last game against Magnolia High School, when the team nearly came back from a 17-point deficit after Thornton subbed in all five seniors into the last quarter of the game.
Thornton said Wolsey told him that was the most fun he'd ever had playing on a basketball team. Wolsey reportedly told him that all the seniors still get together once a year to hang out.
The team only won two games that season.
This was one of Thornton’s proudest moments as a coach. In his career, winning has always come second.
Fittingly, when he took the job at OCC, he only had one philosophy in mind.
“I’ve always tried to do things the right way,” Thornton said. “I feel like a community college should be for the community.”
Contrary to many other basketball programs in Southern California, Thornton has always believed in recruiting locally.
His work ethic is infectious. Eleven of his former players have come back to assist in coaching.
Thornton’s current assistant, Sami Little, quit his team in 2011 only to be welcomed back three years later as a player-coach.
“He really helped bring that passion and love for the game back into me as a competitor,” Little said. “I was super grateful that he just welcomed me with open arms. He did not hold a grudge that I had walked away.”
Little, along with dozens of former players and seemingly everyone on campus, came to say their goodbyes to Thornton in his last home game on Friday.
The celebratory atmosphere filled Peterson Gym to capacity. His leadership and example on campus will be remembered forever.
“I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do after this,” Thornton said. “My wife’s retired. Her and I at the house at the same time all the time, that’s not going to be good.”