Dec. 14, 2011
Thomas Returns Home
By Myles Udland
Will Thomas has always wanted to make his way back to Storrs. The 2005 UConn graduate is now in his sixth year as a collegiate track and field coach, but the 2011 school year marks his first back at his alma mater. "This is the job I wanted the whole time. In a way it was like I was just waiting for this job to open up," said Thomas.
Thomas, an eight-time BIG EAST Champion and three-time All-American as a Husky, has spent time on both coasts over the last five years working as a volunteer, part-time, and full-time assistant coach. "I've moved around a bit, but not by choice. Opportunities just present themselves." Following opportunities across all parts of the country is what collegiate coaches sign up for, but Thomas never forgot where his desire to coach first came from. "Coach Miller and Coach Roy are the guys who made me want to do what I'm doing. So to get an opportunity to work with them, for my team, to continue the success of this program, was an absolute no-brainer."
Thomas began his coaching career in 2005 as a volunteer assistant at UC-Berkeley after Thomas moved to the Bay Area to continue his competitive career. "Training as a professional decathlete is a tough life," said Thomas, who recalls his time in Berkeley as consisting of training, eating, working, and repeating. "I knew I wanted to get into coaching, but I'd be the first to say I wasn't doing a whole lot of coaching." But in 2006, a position opened up at Harvard, and taking this opportunity brought Thomas back east and allowed him to begin working more closely with athletes.
"At Harvard I had a great first three years of experience. Sometimes in your first couple years of coaching you don't get to work with athletes that are fun and exciting to work with, but right off the bat [at Harvard] I had kids that made the job exciting. I was hooked right away," said Thomas. During his tenure at Harvard, Thomas coached athletes to school records in the pole vault, and multiple top-10 finishes at the NCAA Championships in both the pole vault and the high jump.
After his success at Harvard, Thomas stayed in the Ivy League, taking a position at Dartmouth. "That was probably my best year of coaching in terms of the development of the kids, and the team atmosphere up there was great," said Thomas. "But then the opportunity to go back to Cal opened up. It was a chance to go back to the Bay Area and coach in the Pac-10, and I had to jump on that."
During his second stint in Berkeley, Thomas was instrumental in establishing a `Big Brother' program designed to ensure the academic success of freshman athletes, as well as those on academic probation. Thomas took his inspiration for this program from the `Big Brother' program that is used by the UConn track and field program, which pairs an underclassman with an upperclassman mentor who they meet with during an hour-long weekly meeting to review their academic progress. "I didn't get to do exactly what I wanted to do with Big Brother at Cal, which was have the whole team involved. So I modified the program until it was workable under the head coaches program out there," said Thomas.
After spending four years coaching in the Ivy League, returning to a major program like Cal reminded Thomas of his time as a student-athlete in Storrs. "Cal is very much like UConn, where you have kids from all different socioeconomic backgrounds coming from all over the country. So immediately it was, `we need to get something in place now.' And it went really well; the kids bought in," said Thomas, as last year's freshman class had the highest first-semester GPA in the history of the track program at Cal. "I think you learn the benefit of the stuff that seems like a pain as a freshman or sophomore as you get older. And then coming back as a coach and seeing kids struggling, you realize you have to have a program like that. I don't know how other programs get by without that kind of structure."
And so Thomas returns to Storrs not only as a proud alumnus, but as an accomplished coach that has left his mark on three programs both athletically and scholastically. But in speaking with Thomas, it is clear that his heart never left Storrs. "Being able to come back to Storrs and work with the two guys I probably respect most on the planet has been great. The first couple months have been the best I've had coaching for sure, and a lot of things have fallen in line. It's been good to be home."