East Mississippi Community College holds a dear place in Tony Montgomery's heart.
That remains true even after Montgomery's contract was not renewed at Monday's Board of Trustees meeting following his fourth year at the helm of the Lions' program. He had spent the previous eight years as an assistant in Scooba on Bill Baldner's staff.
"The toughest part is just leaving here," Montgomery said. "So many good friends and it's kind of like being a family here. The coaching was just another reason to be East Mississippi. It wasn't the reason I was at East Mississippi, it was just another reason. I loved being here.
"I'm grateful. This place started me off coaching and playing, so I owe it a lot."
In his four years guiding the Lions, EMCC went 83-110. Following a 20-30 year in 2007, the Lions improved to 29-18. However, with Gerald Poole Field going under renovations in 2009, the Lions stumbled to 11-37 before rebounding to finish 23-25 this past season.
"I was surprised, I thought in four seasons that we had won 20, 29 and 23 which was more than they had won in 10, 15, 20 years," Montgomery said. "I know we had the one bad year when we didn't have a field. But we all kind of expected it and to come back from that and with our freshmen never having a chance to get better before coming back as sophomores. So we really had an all-freshmen team this year, and we had a wonderful recruiting year.
"It was a surprise."
Still, during the annual review of each program, EMCC's Athletic Advisory Committee — which includes five trustees, President Dr. Rick Young and athletic director Mickey Stokes — came to the conclusion the Lions needed to change directions. Stokes said the committee looks at each program and determines what is needed for the program to improve. That could mean facilities, equipment or personnel.
"We review them and discuss things we can do or needs the programs may have and just evaluate what is going on with the program," Stokes said. "A lot of times there is no action taken. But, it doesn't always have to be personnel. It's just examining the needs of the program and what we can do to improve them. And if something needs to happen, the advisory committee recommends it to the board.
"It made the recommendation that coach Montgomery's contract not be renewed. It was a difficult decision and wasn't something that was taken lightly. It was discussed quite lengthy, but the committee made that recommendation and it was a combination of several factors. First, what was best for the program to move forward. It was based on the records, his season records during his tenure as head coach, playoffs and what would improve the program as a whole."
Montgomery admitted that, as a coach, the bottom line of wins and losses is always important. Still, he felt that the Lions had shown enough improvement during his tenure, especially after the rough 2009 campaign.
"Anytime you are in the coaching world, that's what it is about," he said. "It caught me a little more by surprise just because I had been here so long. I was told last year that we needed to have a better season and improve on things. I thought we did that, but I guess it wasn't good enough.
"It just let's you know that no matter what, sometimes you just don't have control over things. That's why you don't put your trust in people, you put your trust in God. People will let you down."
But now that EMCC has moved on, Montgomery is reluctantly doing the same. The Columbus native has already applied a few places and is just hoping to do what's best for his family.
"The biggest thing is to just get a job," he said. "It's not necessarily even a coaching job or a certain area, it's just getting a teaching job.
"I love coaching, but at the same time, I have to take care of my family."
Added Stokes: "We wish coach Montgomery the very best. We will help him in any way possible because he is a good person."
Stokes, though, is also eyeing the future of the Lions' baseball program and said EMCC will likely be accepting applications until late May before conducting interviews and, hopefully, ready to announce the next coach in June.
"We hope to find someone that has the leadership qualities that's been a part of a winning program," Stokes said. "It doesn't have to be, but it would be nice to find someone that has some post-secondary experience. It's not a requirement. There's a lot of high school coaches out there that could do a good job, I'm sure.
"But with recruiting being such a big part of college athletics, it would be nice to have some experience with recruiting. The big thing is just having the leadership qualities that not only be a winner in terms of wins and losses but also in running a quality program — disciplined, be well-respected, someone that players enjoy playing for and appreciate and respect."