Many pivotal football points influenced Dennis E. Thomas’ lifelong athletics career.
They began as a high school player in Heidelberg, Miss., that earned a scholarship to Alcorn State, a HBCU in Lorain, Miss. He earned All-American honors from the famed Pittsburgh Courier that was long considered the authority on black college football during segregated times and into the 1970s.
Despite Thomas’ success, he tells a story about facing Tennessee State’s Ed “Too Tall” Jones, a 6-foot-9 defensive end that went on to a legendary 14-year NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys. The matchup convinced him his immediate future was in coaching rather than pro football. He was a graduate assistant at Louisiana-Monroe and a head coach at South Carolina State from 1986 to 1989 before moving into administration with his Masters’ and doctorate degrees.
Thomas was Hampton University’s athletic director for 12 years during a period when the program transitioned from Division II to Division. I. He also made his mark serving on multiple NCAA national committees.
The presidents at the 13 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schools noticed his work and nominated him to become the commissioner. He reflected on football’s influence on his life as he prepares for his 15th year as the MEAC Commissioner.
Football Matters: How has football influenced you throughout each phase of your career?
Dennis Thomas: My parents, Russell and Marjorie, stressed education and extra-curricular activities. My mother played the piano and wanted me to play it, but I wanted to play football. I was able to convince her there was a conflict with football practice. I learned a lot about myself playing football. Without football, I really don’t know where my life’s journey would have ended up. Football impressed upon me work ethic, perseverance and tenacity. Those are all adjectives that are applicable to life. All of this opened up to me from getting a football scholarship.
DT: I had great coaches as mentors. My coach in middle school and high school was W.C. Jones. My college coach was Marino “The Godfather” Casem. He’s in the College Football Hall of Fame. I wanted to be a coach — a leader and a mentor — in their mold. They stressed team work was so important to success. You learn through football that your teammates are not of all of the same ability or mindset. I learned from observing my coaches that building a team is about molding personalities. The same is true in life. I don’t know a coach living or dead that stressed teaching us hard work and discipline more than Coach Casem.
FM: What made you decide to transition into administration?
DT: I loved playing and coaching, but later I realized I wanted to get into administration. When I got my Bachelor’s degree, it made me think about graduate school. When I got my Masters’ degree, I wanted to get my doctorate degree. As an athletics director I was able to work with our student-athletes and coaches. As a commissioner, it gives me platform to assist student-athletes and coaches at another level. Now, instead of emphasizing my attention on one institution, I can take my energy to 13 institutions. I’ve been very fortunate. Every job I’ve had, I’ve loved it. Football has been very good to Dennis Thomas.
FM: What was it like facing the legendary Ed “Too Tall” Jones?
DT: When we played Tennessee State at Soldier Field, one of my teammates on the line was Harold Terrell, who played in the Canadian Football League. I did OK, against Too Tall, but I told Harold, ‘I’m not at your level; I’m not at the next level,’ When I got back to Alcorn, I didn’t miss a class. I focused my energy on earning my degrees.