GSHS grad Higginbotham named director of strength & conditioning at Millsaps
By Fran Thompson
Although still only 27 years old, Joel Higginbotham’s life journey – one that started right here on Pleasure Island – took its first serious turn when he switched majors from criminal justice to exercise science while at Auburn University.
An accomplished athlete while growing up, Joel competed in basketball, baseball and football for Gulf Shores teams since he was five years old. Although he had a chance to play college football, he found his calling on the other side of the whistle as an intern working directly under Ryan Russell, the director of strength & conditioning at Auburn.
“I knew after a year at Auburn that I wanted to be in sports medicine in some way and that internship during my last semester was my biggest and most positive influence,’’ Joel said. “For him to take me in and trust me to do it right meant a lot.’’
Now the director of strength & conditioning at Millsaps College in Jackson, MS, Joel said Russell, in addition to teaching him coaching techniques such as periodization schemes, made him realize that a huge part of his job was helping athletes be accountable not only as team members, but as citizens.
“He taught me a bunch about how to teach kids to not only be better at their sport, but be better people, to prepare them to be ready for life after they stop playing their sport,’’ Joel said. “That is something I never even thought about before then, and it stuck with me.’’
Always smart in the classroom, Higginbotham also earned practical experience while completing internships at Samford University working with the Olympic Sports department, and Mississippi State, before taking his current position at Millsaps, an NCAA Division III school with around 900 students.
“I knew it would be a heavy workload, but I like that, and I am learning the administrative side as well,’’ he said. “I don’t wake up dreading going to work. I like it.’’
Joel’s official titles at Millsaps are director of strength & conditioning and director of recreation & intramural sports. He works with coaches and athletes on 14 of the school’s 16 varsity sports teams (all but men’s & women’s golf). Job responsibilities vary from sitting in on meetings with the student life board to meeting with head coaches to hiring referees for the intramural program. “It’s a big change from what I would be doing at a big school,’’ he said. “I just want to make Millsaps as a whole better.
“It’s been a great experience and I am really enjoying it,’’ Joel added. “The stress and pressure is not as high (as a high profile sports program), but it’s a good learning opportunity and a good way to build up a resume. You get to learn from your mistakes and things like that.’’
Joel also worked as a graduate assistant at UTEP, and has certification as a strength and conditioning specialist and a USA Weightlifting (USAW) Sports Performance Certification on his resume.
He is the first full time strength coach ever to work at the school. “The athletes and the coaches trust me, and getting that trust from them makes for a smooth transition,’’ he said.
“It’s a lot of responsibility, but I’m blessed for it, and I’m definitely embracing the opportunity,’’ Joel added. “For a young coach, you can’t beat working at this level. The equipment options are slim, and you have to think outside the box and improvise. With a smaller budget, you can’t afford the nicest equipment, but we make it work.’’
Joel said he enjoys the challenge and scope of his position at Millsaps, but if a dream type job ever opened up on The Plains, well….
“That would probably be something I could not turn down,’’ he said. “I know I would have to start out as an assistant and work my way up, but to go back to my alma mater would be great.’’
Joel says he gets home for holidays to visit his family (mom Alison still lives on Pleasure Island) and friends when he can. He misses the very same things about his home town that make Pleasure Island such an attractive destination for visitors.
“You take the beach for granted when you’ve lived there for almost 20 years, but when you get away from it and spend time in big cities, it’s what you miss the most,’’ he said.
“I still like to get together with my friends, go to the beach and hang out at