At 22 years old, Tommy Knight faced a choice. He could either sign with the Atlanta Braves or forgo his professional baseball dreams, walking away from a small amount of money and a plane ticket to Idaho Falls, Idaho for high-A ball.
Three decades later, he’s confident he made the right decision.
Saying no to a pro baseball career, Knight has gone on to become one of the winningest high school coaches in the state. He’s spent 32 years in the coaching ranks, 21 of them at Jefferson High School. Knight owns 425 wins with the Dragons, 10 region titles and one state championship.
“Some people ask me, ‘Are you sad that you didn’t go play?’” Knight said. “I said, ‘No, I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now if I’d decided to play baseball professionally.’ It’s all worked out. God’s got a plan, and he’s put me where he wants me.”
Knight arrived at Jefferson in 1994 and stayed three seasons before moving on to a seven-year stint coaching college baseball. But he returned in 2004 and is in his 18th since back with the Dragons, who are yet again a top-10 team this season. Along the way, legions of players have come under his watch.
Knight called Jefferson “a special place.”
“Being this long in one place and being able to stay this long in one place doesn’t happen a ton,” Knight said. “In coaching, a lot of moving goes around. But when you’re in a place like we are, it’s just a special place to be in.”
Jon Veldhuis remembers first meeting Knight when he was a mere eighth grader, having made Jefferson’s junior varsity baseball team in 1996.
“He was just super intimidating because he was so focused and so intense,” Veldhuis said. “He was just kind of a scary guy.”
These days, Veldhuis, now a Jefferson assistant coach, holds a much different view of his old coach — and current boss.
“He’s a totally different-style coach now, which is the crazy part,” Veldhuis said.
Veldhuis marvels at how the 56-year-old Knight — whose time at Jefferson started before most people began using email and the internet – has adapted his coaching style over the years to match the changing times.
“That’s one of the most impressive parts about him,” Velduis said. “He’s an old-school guy, and he manages to get these younger kids that are of totally different generations from what he started, he’s able to build relationships with them and get every ounce of talent he can out of every kid on the team.”
Zac Corbin, who played for Knight from 2016-2019, said the longtime coach’s care for his players is genuine, remembering a particular request he made of Knight once.
“I asked him to take me to church,” said Corbin. “I went to church with him on a Sunday. He’s always there for his players. I know some coaches say that’s why they do it, but that’s actually why he’s in it.”
Meanwhile, the spotlight is something Knight seems to shun despite notable success.
Veldhuis pointed out that the Georgia Dugout Club often sends plaques to coaches upon reaching milestone victories. Knight has received a few of them.
“He takes them and shoves them in a drawer,” he said.
Veldhuis called Knight “the most humble person that I’ve ever been around.”
“We have to look up our record a lot of times, and that’s just a tribute to him that we’re moving on to the next one,” Veldhuis said. “We’re not worried about boasting … He’s got who knows how many wins in his career, and you would never know it.”
To the surprise of some, Knight is actually not from Jefferson (“Even the older people sometimes think I’m from Jefferson,” he said). The son of a college baseball coach, Knight grew up in Americus and played at Georgia Southwestern before being drafted in the 35th round by the Atlanta Braves — the team he followed loyally growing up — in 1987.
“That was one of the most exciting and one of the most kind of turmoil points in my life,” Knight said of being drafted. “I had to decide if I wanted to be what I always said I wanted to be, or if I wanted to do something else.”
After telling the Braves no, he landed his first head-coaching job in 1991 at struggling Sumter County, a place where some players tried out for the team wearing blue jeans and Knight had to purchase bats and gloves for many on the roster.
Following a three-year rebuilding project, he moved on to Jefferson, which had only restarted its baseball program eight years earlier. The field that existed then was rather simplistic, bearing little resemblance to the upscale, brick-based ballpark of today.
But Knight was rather successful rather quickly, compiling a 60-25 record with an Elite Eight appearance and a region title, and then was gone after three seasons to pursue his college coaching dreams.
But the demands of coaching, recruiting and fundraising — and the time away from his young family — took its toll on Knight. He vividly remembered the turning point during a discussion with his wife, Carol Ann, after he’d been on the road for a three-to-four night stretch.
“Carol Ann said, ‘I just want you to know that Cathryn (Knight’s younger daughter) slept with your picture last night,’” Knight said. “It was like, that’s a dagger right there. I can’t keep doing this. That was pretty much it.”
Knight and his family returned to Jefferson in 2004 to what he described as a turnkey operation thanks to coach Chuck Cook, who guided the Dragons to 127 wins and two Finals Fours while Knight was away.
“Honestly, without him bridging that gap the way that he did, I don’t know that we would have success as much as we did when we were coming back,” Knight said.
To that end, his second act at Jefferson has spanned 18 seasons, yielding 365 wins, nine region championships and the program’s crowning achievement — the 2018 state title.
“2018 was special because that group, they just figured out how to win ball games, and they had a great time doing it,” Knight said. “They competed their tails off doing it.”
Knight has been able to hold players to high expectations and command respect with rarely having to raise his voice to get his point across.
“If coach Knight ever yells at you, you’re in trouble,” said Lane Watkins, who played for Knight from 2016-2019. “If something is ever going wrong, he’ll pull you off to the side. He doesn’t yell at you in front of the whole team.”
That’s not to say that old intensity is not still there with Knight. Quite the opposite.
“Coach Knight likes to go at full speed all the time,” Watkins said. “I think at practice, it’s a rapid-fire kind of thing. With coach Knight, we were flying around all the time.”
Similarly, Veldhuis said Knight’s program is “all-go, all the time,” which is a reflection of the coach.
“He’s the hardest-working man I’ve ever been around,” Veldhuis said. “ … He’s the first one at the field and the last to leave everyday. I feel like I work 100 million hours, and he always works longer than I do.”
But there’s been time for light-hearted moments, too.
Watkins noted a pre-game tradition in which each Dragon must give the coach a high-five. The taller players like to poke fun at Knight’s shorter stature, extending their hands as high as they can go to make it an obstacle of sorts for their coach.
“We hold our hands way up in the air to make him jump to give us a high five, and coach Knight … he hates it, but he loves it, too,” said the 6-foot-2 Watkins. “Every time, he gets a huge smile on his face, and it’s just fun.”
As far as humorous stories, Veldhuis relates one in which Knight used a Fungo bat to manually control the throttle on a malfunctioning team bus to help guide it the final two miles to Blessed Trinity for the 2015 state finals.
Veldhuis called the moment “absolutely hysterical,” but one that illustrates a point amidst the humor.
“It just goes to show you how determined he was to get there and be on time — that’s another thing (with him),” Veldhuis said. “If you’re not five minutes early, you’re pretty much late.”
As Knight’s time at Jefferson has surpassed two decades, more than baseball is being taught. Team discussions often center around what players can expect out of life after athletics. That’s been a hallmark of Knight’s program, according to Veldhuis.
“He talks about, ‘Guys, one day you’re going to be a father. You’re going to be the leader of your family, and you’re going to have to make tough decisions at times,’” Veldhuis said. “Baseball is just secondary a lot of times. He truly cares about the kid.”
Both Watkins and Corbin — now Division- I college baseball players — said they still talk or text with Knight regularly.
“He’s just a person you can talk to about anything,” Watkins said. “You don’t have to talk about baseball to be able talk to him. He’s just a great person you can call, no matter what is going on.”
“If I needed him, I feel like I could call him right now and he’d be there for me,” Corbin said.
Veldhuis, once Knight’s player and now his colleague, counts Knight as “as much a mentor in my everyday life as he is in baseball.”
As for his future, Knight said he still finds joy coaching in a place that long ago became his home. At 56, he feels he has “a lot of energy left” for a career he’s viewed as a ministry for the past 32 years.
“If I ever retire, I’m going to have to find something that I can have a purpose and have something that takes up my time,” Knight said. “If I quit cold turkey, holy cow, I don’t know what I’d do. I might go crazy.”