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January 11, 2011

COACHING CAROUSEL - Former Tech standout Charlie Thomas' love of basketball has taken him to many different places

By: Jimmy Robertson

Charlie Thomas helped lead the Hokies to the NIT title in 1973, and after four seasons of playing professional basketball, he got into coaching.

Charlie Thomas grew up in Harrisonburg, Va., and grew up around the sport of basketball.

He’s perfectly content growing old with it, too.

One of key cogs on Tech’s 1973 NIT championship team, Thomas has spent a lifetime playing and coaching basketball. The playing part started as a kid, but the coaching part started sort of by accident, and he’s found himself at many obscure places as a result.

“I wanted to find something I would enjoy doing,” Thomas said. “My major was recreation, and I thought I would be a park ranger or design parks. Then I thought about getting into refereeing or working with kids. I had done that before and it was fun. Then it turned out that I started coaching.”

Thomas first made a name for himself as an outstanding player. A defensive stopper with an ability to score, the former Ferrum Junior College standout teamed with Bobby Stevens – another Ferrum great – and Allan Bristow to lead the Hokies on a magical run during the 1972-73 season. The Hokies went 18-5 during the regular season and received an invitation to the 16-team NIT.

While in New York City and at Madison Square Garden, Tech beat four teams by a total of five points, a run culminating in a 92-91 overtime victory over Notre Dame in the championship game, as Stevens hit a game-winning jumper at the buzzer.

“We weren’t in awe of anyone,” said Thomas, who averaged 13 points per game that season. “We knew we had a good team. We knew if we could get a few breaks and have a little luck, then we could win – and that’s what we did.”

Thomas played at Tech for one more season, and then, he played basketball professionally overseas, traveling to Luxembourg, where he played for one year. Then he spent three years in Venezuela.

He came back to Blacksburg and finished up coursework toward his degree in 1978. Through a friend, he landed an assistant coaching gig at Panhandle State University in Goodwell, Okla. He drove out to Oklahoma, where he lived in a dorm on campus and made $3,000 a year.

“After two years, I couldn’t do it any more for $3,000,” Thomas said. “So I came back to Virginia and opened a vintage records store in Harrisonburg. I had a friend who owned an auction house, and I’d buy records from him and sell them.”

That gig lasted less than a year before basketball came calling again. Through another friend, he wound up becoming an assistant coach at Wilson Memorial High School in Fishersville, Va., which started his journey of coaching for 25 years at five different schools.

In 1987, after stops at Emory & Henry and Bristol College, Thomas got an offer to be an assistant at San Francisco State in downtown San Francisco. The job paid $23,400, so he packed up his wife, Chery, and two kids, Shonda and Chaz, and moved into a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco.

“We put the kids in the bedroom and my wife and I slept on a pullout couch for two years,” he said. “Then after a couple of years, I got bumped to around $29,000 and we moved into a two-bedroom apartment down the hall.”

In 1988, head coach Tim Franklin left and Thomas got the head job. He stayed in that role for more than 16 years, winning Northern California Athletic Conference coach of the year honors in 1989-90 and 1993-94. In 2005, he decided to resign and retire.

“Things started to get a little hectic,” Thomas said. “A new AD came in and there were a bunch of changes. It was a tough job anyway, so I decided to get out.”

He still stayed around basketball, though. He watched Chaz play at Cal San Luis Obispo until Chaz graduated last year, and he’s spent the past three years as an assistant at West Hills College, a junior college, in Coalinga, Calif.

He hopes to get back East at some point. He came back several years ago for a reunion of the NIT championship team, but hasn’t been back since.

“I appreciate what Coach [Don] DeVoe and his staff did for me,” Thomas said. “I was a little bit of a rebel back then, but what they taught me has made me a better coach. They made me grow up, and I hope the young men I’ve been around have grown up the same way.”