Ongoing adversity at Alcorn can’t shake coach’s drive to build winning program

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 24, 2001

Johnny Thomas carries dignity on his broad shoulders, warmth in his friendly smile. He is a big man but graceful. He wears his size well.

As his giant hand clasps a smaller one in a friendly hello, the head football coach of Alcorn State University seems a man at ease with himself. In candid conversation, he proved that impression to be so.

Recent news has centered on the Alcorn football team’s dismal 0-11 record for the 2000 season. Calls for the removal of Thomas as head coach have resounded from among disgruntled alumni. Taunts from the stands during games at the huge Alcorn Braves stadium in Lorman did not go unnoticed nor are they forgotten.

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&uot;My mother comes to every game,&uot; he said. &uot;She sits behind us in the handicap section. I asked her during one game if she wanted to go up to the press box so she didn’t have to hear what people were yelling at me. She said, ‘no, I’ll stay here with my friends.’&uot;

His mother’s decision that day speaks volumes about the self-assurance Thomas gained from both his parents, Marjorie and Russell Thomas, while growing up in the small east Mississippi town of Heidelberg. He is no braggart, displays not a whit of arrogance; but he is strong.

&uot;I never thought I would be head coach at Alcorn,&uot; said Thomas, who was a star on the Alcorn football team all four years of his career there, beginning in 1974, and was named head coach in 1998. &uot;When I first came back here, winning was all I could think about. That attitude took me out of the framework of how I want to deal with people on a personal and professional basis. I’m embarrassed by that now, but today I have a better perspective. And after last year, I’ve gained a new awareness of myself as a coach and as a person.&uot;

Help during his journey

Mentors make up a long list in his book, those who have coached him, taught him, monitored his master’s and doctorate degree programs and worked with him as peers. But the most influential person in his life remains his father, he said.

&uot;He worked all the time, making sure we had all we needed to succeed,&uot; Thomas said. &uot;He dropped out before finishing high school, but he seems to have a Ph.D. in life.&uot; All five of the Thomas children have become successful adults, the three brothers earning doctorate degrees and teaching at the university level, one sister teaching school and the other working at Baptist Hospital in Laurel.

&uot;As I’ve gone through different kinds of challenges, I’ve realized my father was a genius,&uot; said Thomas, youngest of the five siblings. &uot;Everything he prepared me for has manifested itself in my life.&uot;

Thomas described his father as a no-nonsense disciplinarian. &uot;He believed in doing everything right and to the best of your ability.&uot; His father believed in being candid, he said. And if any of the children did something wrong, he addressed the problem immediately. &uot;He always told me the truth, and today I can take constructive criticism. He gave me this strong emotional base that helps me to withstand adversity.&uot;

His father worked in a factory. His mother was a school teacher for 35 years. &uot;We had a big garden on a couple of acres, and I always had chores to do every evening,&uot; Thomas said. &uot;And my dad expected them to be done.&uot;

In awe of his mother’s spiritual strength and selfless community service, Thomas said he continues to look to her for guidance, also. &uot;Mama’s level of thinking is totally different from so many other people’s,&uot; he said. &uot;When I was going through a period of some difficulty when I first came back to Alcorn and some people were criticizing me, I asked her advice. She told me to pray for them.&uot;

Two weeks ago Mrs. Thomas was honored as one of two outstanding community servants in Heidelberg, he said. &uot;She has always been that way, playing the piano at different churches and planning services for Christmas, Easter, Bible school. She’s always taking food and clothes to people who are in need.&uot;

Growing through adversity

Admitting that he had not always been a &uot;model person,&uot; Thomas said he wants to continue to grow as a person, using the sound upbringing to keep him centered on important issues.

&uot;No coach in his right mind would be happy with the record I have now,&uot; he said. &uot;How could I be pleased? I never thought it would happen.&uot; He smiles broadly as he recalls coaching days in the 1980s, when he was an assistant at Mississippi Valley State during the Jerry Rice days. &uot;I had a tremendous amount of fun,&uot; he said, laughing aloud and tossing back his head. &uot;It was a great feeling to have as a coach, knowing that you were going to win – every time you were going to win.&uot;

He looks objectively and philosophically at his situation today, using examples from history and from around the globe to put his problems with outspoken critics in perspective.

&uot;If you look at leaders of big organizations, in the professions, they have gone through more adversity and paid a greater price than I have. Look at what Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln had to endure, even Bill Clinton. And every time President Bush goes out of his office, there are people there protesting about something; and every week there are people on the talk shows criticizing him.&uot;

Thomas said stress is simply a challenge. &uot;Every day is very challenging, very purposeful. Some people don’t like stress. I want it to take me to another level. I want to learn from it. Give me knowledge, not gossip.&uot;

A single man in his 40s, Thomas lives on campus in the faculty apartment complex. Some people have tagged him as unsociable, he said. &uot;I’m very sociable in my profession, but at the end of the day I’m the same as my father was. I want to have time to myself. I am a private person. It’s just the way I was brought up.&uot;

Not much time remains for him away from the job during the busy days of preparing for a football season. By 5 a.m. he is taking his morning exercise, running four miles. By 7:30 a.m. he is in the office.

He works long hours. And he thrives on it. He insists, though, that he is not married to the job. &uot;I like to have fun, too,&uot; he said. He reads, particularly enjoying biographies and autobiographies. And he avidly reads the Bible, finding it filled with intriguing and motivating stories. &uot;Reading the Bible helps me to deal with my problems,&uot; he said.

Building leaders and champs

During the morning run, Thomas organizes his day, deciding what he wants to accomplish as a person and as a coach. Running helps him to keep physically fit and mentally alert, he said. His thoughts center on how best to build not only the best football team but the best young men. His football players are students and athletes. They deserve a total college experience that helps them to become well-rounded academically and socially as well as athletically, he said.

&uot;I can’t see how a person could survive in our society without a sound education, the ability to read and write – and to understand the mechanics of the language.&uot; He thinks a student must know the parts of speech and parts of a sentence. He advocates typing classes for his athletes, to prepare them for computer training. He wants his players to be able to communicate fluently in any situation.

And he wants them to learn about respect. &uot;When I address my guys, I say, ‘how are you today, sir?’ I want them to say ‘yes, sir’ and not ‘yeah’ or ‘naw, man.’ I’m trying to help them change their behavior to operate effectively in an environment outside the university. When they go out to apply for a job, they can’t say, ‘hey, man.’&uot;

No one was more violent, more aggressive on the Alcorn State football field in the 1970s than Johnny &uot;Rip Saw&uot; Thomas. &uot;My freshman year I was the strongest man on the team,&uot; he said. &uot;My ability to hit hard earned me that name.&uot; His success on the field also earned him accolades and awards, which he modestly acknowledges.

Certainly he wants the same action-packed play from the Alcorn team he coaches today. However, he wants his athletes to know the differences between football field demeanors and off-field behavior.

&uot;I believe our student athletes need to know how to function well and be received well by potential employers, instructors, other students and the administration. They have to know there is a different personality to display off the field. They have to leave the violent, aggressive behavior there.&uot;

Thomas said he and the other coaches are working hard to produce champions, both on and off the field. And leaders. &uot;When I did my doctorate dissertation on leadership at the University of Missouri, I found two components of leadership often left out.&uot;

A leader should teach others to be leaders, not followers, he said. And a leader should be a server, not be served.

&uot;You have a plan. You work on it, refine it. I know in my heart and soul that I’ve done everything to get this program back on a strong foundation with as few flaws as possible,&uot; he said. &uot;If we could leave it so that somebody else can come in and build on what we’ve erected, we’ve accomplished something.&uot;