Before Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was even born, coach Joseph F. Thomas was dazzling and frustrating his opponents with his innovative zone defense.
Coach Thomas was born in 1915 and grew up in Philadelphia. When the Great Depression struck, Thomas left high school as a sophomore to deliver fresh milk at dawn to help support his family. He would finish high school and attend the University of Dayton on a full football scholarship where he met his wife, Mary Kathryn Herold. She was voted most beautiful woman on campus in 1938, and they would be married for 57 years until her death in 1996.
Thomas was the starting quarterback for Dayton where he and three other players became known as the “Quaker State Express” (all hailing from Pennsylvania) when UD captured the Ohio Buckeye Conference championship in 1938. He carried that excellence in athletics and turned it into an illustrious coaching career.
Thomas returned to Pennsylvania and coached basketball at North Catholic High School in the days prior to World War II. In the early 40s, Thomas won the first Pennsylvania State Catholic Championship after guiding his team to a 28-0 record. Thomas was able to lead his team over tougher opponents because of the zone.
“[Opponents] still had not figured out coach Thomas’ defense,” said one of his players, Barney Otten (who changed his middle name to “Joseph Thomas” in honor of him).
Thomas told his players that they could continue to play zone until they lost a game. The team ended up playing the zone the whole season because “we didn’t lose,” Otten said.
Once the zone created a turnover, his teams immediately capitalized.
“The ball didn’t touch the court [on offense],” said Thomas’ son, Jeff. “It was zip, zip, zip,” he said, describing the fast pace in which players would pass and eventually score.
When the war came, Thomas would serve three years in the U.S. Army’s Eight Infantry Division. Thomas would rise to the rank of First Lieutenant and was awarded the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf cluster for his meritorious service. On one eventful night in Germany, Thomas was walking with three other soldiers. One of them was shot in the head by snipers while Thomas and the other men scrambled for cover.
Thomas survived that night and came back to finish his masters in education at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1947, he was recruited to coach football at Chaminade High School in Mineola, New York. And that is where Thomas cemented his legend.
From 1948 to 1969, Thomas coached his football teams to a combined 120-47-7 record, including an 8-0 record in 1961. His teams were Catholic High School Football Champions on seven different occasions. Thomas also coached junior varsity basketball and track and field. He was successful in all of his ventures as the track and field team compiled a 76-30 record. In 1977, the football field at Chaminade was named “Thomas Field” in his honor.
Thomas retired in 1988 and was given the Chaminade Founders Award and the Crimson and Gold award, the highest honor bestowed by Chaminade. That same year, I became his next-door neighbor.
I heard all of these stories throughout the next 22 years of my life. Mrs. Thomas, “Kay” to others who knew her, would always tease Mr. Thomas during our conversations by the fence we shared.
“Stop boring Wesley with your grandpa stories,” she would say.
I was anything but bored. Mr. Thomas had a razor-sharp memory. He could recall facts, names and events from 50 years ago.
I referred to Mr. Thomas as “Wilson,” the neighbor character on Tim Allen’s comedy Home Improvement that aired during the 90s. Wilson’s character consistently offered Allen’s character sage advice during their conversations by the fence. Mr. Thomas took to it, calling himself Wilson as we spoke.
His players would never forget the way Mr. Thomas changed their lives.
One of his players, Al Groh, went on to become the head coach of the New York Jets. The day Groh was announced as the head coach, Groh invited Thomas to the press conference.
Another one of his players was Dan Rooney, who became the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the new U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See. Each Christmas, Mr. Thomas would receive a Christmas card autographed by the entire team with a personal note from Rooney. There was also Chuck Mansfield, a highly successful businessman, who played for Mr. Thomas in the mid-60s, and referred to Mr. Thomas as a second father to him.
On Jan. 6, 2011, Mr. Thomas passed away at the age of 96. Thomas was survived by three children, nine grandchildren and five great grandchildren.
He led an inspiring life, and his caring, patient and calm presence will be missed.
That’s all for this week, folks. See you at the same time, same place next week.
Editor in Chief
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