Bob Thomason jokes about his remarkable coaching longevity at his alma mater by saying the ever-changing athletic directors over the years didn’t know better than to keep him around.
That’s hardly the case. Yet as Thomason prepares to step down in the coming weeks after a quarter-century guiding the Pacific program, he realizes how special it is to stay at one school for so long in this day of high-pressure, high-turnover coaching tenures in college athletics.
Before he starts reflecting on all of that too much, Thomason wants to make sure his players have the best possible chance to extend their season and finish with another postseason appearance, preferably the NCAA tournament after he took the Tigers there four times previously.
“When we made the decision last April, May to do this, the first month was getting it out,” Thomason said. “It really helped me, because I’m just coaching basketball. I’ve already kind of gone through the reflection. I’ll do that after the season.”
Pacific (17-12, 11-5 Big West) will honor Thomason when the second-place Tigers host their final home game Saturday against conference leader Long Beach State. He is the father of Sierra High varsity boys basketball head coach Scott Thomason, who also a UOP alum.
Former Tigers guard and current New Orleans Hornets general manager Dell Demps considered trying to get out of his commitment to Pacific when the prior coach who had recruited him was fired and Thomason took over.
Then, Thomason began showing up to watch Demps in games the spring of his senior year, and convinced him he would become a talented shooter in college under Thomason and his staff.
The Tigers were coming off a 5-24 year and riding a 22-game losing streak as Demps began his freshman season. But he would go on to become Pacific’s second-leading scorer all-time with 1,742 points and a three-year NBA career. Demps still holds the school record with 14 assists in a game.
“He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” Demps said. “The great part for me is I get to go out and scout, and everyone has the utmost respect for Coach Bob Thomason. That’s a great compliment, when your peers have to prepare for you or they’re going to get outcoached or embarrassed.”
For two decades, Thomason has fought for Pacific’s return to the West Coast Conference, and the Tigers are headed there next season to play with new No. 1 Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s.
He figures it’s fitting he will walk away from the year-round rigors of coaching just when Pacific begins anew in the WCC and with a new coach leading the program forward. Thomason’s last season as a player for Pacific marked the last time the Tigers were a member of the WCC.
“Obviously, going back to my alma mater, I had a great experience playing at Pacific and being there,” Thomason said. “I love the school so much. I even love the town of Stockton, which takes a lot of abuse for how bad a town it is. It’s been fantastic. I’m not saying a lot of people are going to be doing that in the future, staying someplace for that many years, but it’s been great for me. It’s been great for my family. I’ve enjoyed my experience.”
Thomason, who has coached more games than anyone in program history, is 431-321 at Pacific and the Big West’s career wins leader after passing Jerry Tarkanian in early December. Thomason’s 246 Big West victories also rank tops in the conference.
“Not only 25 years but 25 years with high graduation rates, a high winning percentage and no NCAA issues. It’s quite a career for him,” athletic director Ted Leland said. “Bob, he’s a coach’s coach. He’s from an older generation where your job wasn’t necessarily to be flashy or give great press conferences. Your job was to coach young men, and that’s what he does best.”
Thomason is 483-344 in 27 seasons as an NCAA head coach, including a three-year stint at Division III Cal State Stanislaus.
His message is simple: no shortcuts or excuses. Recruiting is hard to a place like Pacific, but “you’ve got to fight.”
“Our last four years have been the toughest for recruiting with the league being down,” Thomason said. “That’s why it’s great going to the WCC. It’s a really upbeat league. They’re trying to be great, and kids want to be part of that.
“My last year playing for Pacific was the last year they played in the WCC and we won the championship. For Pacific to go back to the WCC, which I’ve been fighting for for 20 years, it’s just fantastic. My time was in the Big West as a coach. It was fun. I have no regrets about anything.”
Thomason is quick to acknowledge “we haven’t had perfect players,” but he always strived to sell the education and build well-rounded student-athletes who earned their degrees. Sons Jeff and Scott went to Pacific, too, and Scott played for his father from 1996-99.
Thomason, himself the son of a coach, still plans to attend games but insists he now will do so with his baseball cap on and his mouth shut.
“He has a system of coaching, a way of coaching, that’s very demanding but he gets the kids to buy into it,” Leland said. “If you’re going to come to Pacific, you don’t play your style of basketball, you play Bob Thomason basketball.”
Demps bought into that plan — and is so glad today that he stuck to his commitment.
As a freshman, Demps and the Tigers won the second game of their 1988-89 season against Cal Poly to snap the 23-game losing streak.
After a 7-21 showing in Thomason’s and Demps’ first years, Pacific won 15 games the following season and 14 each in the following two.
“My first game was his first game,” Demps recalled. “At the time Pacific had the longest losing streak in the country. I just remember him promising me that we’ll look back on this and saying ‘We’ll take this to higher levels.’ I believed that he believed it.
“I remember he came and watched me play in a spring league game and I remember him telling me, ‘You’re going to become a really good shooter.’ At the time, my senior year in high school, I think I’d made eight 3-pointers my whole career and I want to say four of them were the end of the quarter when you heave one up.”
After never being an outside shooter, Demps finished his career with 218 3s.
Thomason and his dad both worked tirelessly with Demps on his shot, something the NBA GM appreciates to this day.
Thomason isn’t sure what’s next, though he does plan to attend the Final Four and enjoy himself. He turns 64 on March 26 and has a new grandchild arriving soon, the fourth for him and wife of 40 years, Jerri.
Thomason is already looking toward their anniversary in February 2014.