After this past season, no one can say Jim Hightower never took the St. Thomas More football program to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Of course, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame’s voting committee recognized before the 2015 season even began that the lack of a Superdome appearance shouldn’t keep Hightower out of the museum in Natchitoches that honors the top sports figures in state history.
Four decades of incredible consistency were enough.
So was the fact that, as the committee discussed candidates for the Class of 2016, Hightower entered the fall 18th on the list of winningest active high school football coaches — and second all-time in Louisiana.
“I never dreamed of this ever happening,” the 68-year-old said. “It never entered my thought process. I thought that maybe I’d get into the LHSAA Hall of Fame eventually, because some of my contemporaries were voted into that. But to be in this Hall with Kevin (Faulk), Jake (Delhomme) and Bert Jones, guys like that, is really beyond my wildest dreams.”
It becomes reality Saturday: Hightower is part of an 11-member class that will be inducted in a ceremony at the Natchitoches Events Center, just a football field away from the Hall of Fame museum.
By leading the Cougars to the Division II select state championship game this past season, Hightower added to his impressive résumé as the second-winningest coach in state history, trailing only John Curtis’ J.T. Curtis. His career record is 386-119-1.
“He’s almost embarrassed by the attention this is going to bring him,” said STM offensive coordinator Shane Savoie, who played quarterback under Hightower. “He’s never wanted it to be about him. As a player, he would always take the blame on himself when things went badly, and he always gave you the glory when things went well. It’s the same today. He stays the course.”
Perhaps the most revealing fact of Hightower’s career: He has never had a losing season.
Although the Cougars lost 24-21 to Parkview Baptist in the title game in December, the season extended STM’s run of 29 straight years in the playoffs under Hightower. Time will tell if a state title is in the Cougars’ future, but Hightower isn’t going to lose sleep over it.
“Sure, I’d like to win one for the school, but that’s never been my driving force,” he said. “To me, it’s always been doing everything we can to give the kids the opportunity to be the best they can be. I want our players leaving here with an appreciation for the game and an appreciation for their teammates.”
Hightower came to St. Thomas More in 1986 from Catholic High of Pointe Coupee. He began coaching there in 1975 and claimed the 1978 Class 1A state title with a 45-16 victory over St. Edmund at LSU’s Bernie Moore Stadium.
“Jim’s always been humble. It’s never been about him, but he deserves it,” said Teurlings Catholic principal Mike Boyer, who coached under Hightower at Catholic and St. Thomas More. “Jim has always done a great job of bringing out the best in his staff. He doesn’t micromanage what’s going on. I can still remember being a young coach trying to learn the game. I’d come up with an idea, and he’d let me run with it. I don’t know if I’d be where I am in my career without his mentorship.”
During his 30 years at STM, Hightower is 259-92, including 15 trips to the state quarterfinals, seven to the semifinals and now one to the championship game.
“He’s still so passionate about the game,” Savoie said. “That hasn’t changed at all. He still has the same fire and passion for the game that he did when I was a sophomore quarterback.”
Hightower is believed to be the only coach in state history to win district championships in all five classifications.
“Jim hasn’t changed at all,” longtime STM defensive coordinator Terry Tidwell said. “He’s the same guy. He has a very analytical mind. If you give him a problem, he’ll think about it and give you a plan. He’s a math teacher. This is a guy who does square roots in his head. He’ll walk around and say, ‘Have you thought about doing it this way?’ His ideas are always pertinent. I don’t think I can ever remember him giving us an idea that wasn’t sound.”
All of his coaching accolades have come in Louisiana, but Hightower is from California. He was born Dec. 29, 1948, in Alhambra. He played football and baseball at Cal-Davis before reconnecting with his parents’ home state as a graduate assistant at LSU beginning in 1971.
His father was from Summerfield, his mother from Baton Rouge. His father was sent to the Santa Monica, California, area during World War II and stayed there after returning from the war.
Hightower admits it’s possible he was a better catcher than linebacker or his college position of strong safety, but his first love was always football. Three decades of St. Thomas More football players have reaped the benefits of that preference.