By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
FULTON – Mike Eaton no longer eats grass.
But when Itawamba Community College’s new president coached the school’s football team, he sometimes took out his tension on the sod.
“He was a legendary, competitive coach,” outgoing President David Cole said of the man with the most wins in school history. “When I used to run into former students, they would ask, ‘Is Mike Eaton still there, and does he still eat grass?’
“He would be so intense, he could reach down and grab grass and kind of chew it.”
Eaton, who officially becomes the college’s sixth president on Monday, admits he developed the nervous habit growing up on a farm in Tippah County. And although the outward habit has disappeared, the intensity has not.
“Mike is an intense sort of person,” said his older brother, Richard Eaton, a retired partner at Eaton, Babb & Smith accounting firm. “He is competitive, and he tends to his battles to the bitter end. If it is a tough situation, he will fight all the way through it until it is over.”
Eaton, 63, is no stranger to ICC, where he has worked for the past 39 years. After graduating from high school in Ripley, he went to Mississippi State University on a football scholarship and played defensive line for the Bulldogs from 1968 to 1972.
Eaton came to ICC as an assistant football coach in 1974. Two years later, at age 25, he was the school’s head coach.
“He had very high expectations,” said Buddy Collins, who played defensive end for Eaton in 1978 and ’79. “He ran a very tight ship, but at the same time, his players knew he cared about them.”
By the time, Eaton stopped coaching in 1992, he had won 111 games and two state titles. He is a member of the ICC, Mississippi and national community college halls of fame.
“Athletics is very intense, and there is a lot of planning,” Eaton said. “You can do everything right and work 80 hours, and at the end of the day, you are on the short end of a scoreboard. Then, the next week, you have to do it all over again.
“It teaches you resilience. You experience failure and have to get up and do it again.”
But Collins, who now works as ICC’s vice president of student services, points out that Eaton’s leadership goes beyond what he gleaned on the athletic fields.
Eaton, Collins said, is the right person at the right time to lead ICC.
“He is a compassionate man as well, and a lot of people don’t see that because they automatically stereotype the hard-nosed football coach he was,” Collins said.
Since coaching, Eaton has been assistant dean of students and vice president of student services. For the past three years, he’s been assistant to the president.
“He has shown himself to be a strategic leader, both in education and of people,” Cole said. “I view Mike as a person who constantly seeks solutions and tries to pull people together.”
Eaton said his first focus as president will be on recruiting and retention after enrollment swelled above 9,000 during the recent recession and then fell to about 6,200 after jobs became more readily available.
“ICC does not need to be reinvented,” he said. “We’re healthy and vibrant. We have an outstanding staff and leadership team. That doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges though because we do every year.”