Sports Perspective On Dr. Joab Thomas
The last I had heard was that he was not doing well. And later Monday the news was confirmed. Dr. Joab Thomas had died that day at age 81.
I first came to know Dr. Thomas when he became president of The University of Alabama. He had a hard act to follow. After the retirement of Frank Rose in 1969, David Mathews had taken over as a "new breed" of college president, quite young, hip and smart. From 1969 until 1980, Mathews was generally regarded as an exceptional intellect in charge of The University. He took time out to serve as Secretary of Education, and in his stead was another outstanding young man, interim president Dr. Richard Thigpen, who had also served as faculty chairman of athletics. And after that was another interim president, Howard Gundy, not as young, but energetic and intelligent.
Dr. Thomas proved to be a most worthy successor to that troika. Although one involved in athletics may tend to view his role from that perspective, there is no doubt that he had a fierce challenge owing to the retirement of Paul Bryant as head football coach and Bryant's subsequent and far-too-soon death while he was continuing to serve as director of athletics.
There are various stories as to who chose Ray Perkins to be Alabama's head football coach, but I am convinced that Bryant had earned the right to select his successor, and exercised it. Regardless, Perkins, who had been head coach of the New York Giants, became head football coach under Joab Thomas.
I also believe (though without concrete evidence) that Thomas was financially bullied by a group of major boosters who wanted Perkins to be like Bryant and serve as both football coach and athletics director. In hindsight, it is clear that it probably would have been better for The University and for Perkins if the jobs had been separated.
Finally, I believe that Joab Thomas's legacy was besmirched because of that poor decision. In making sure it was not repeated, he made what was another ill-advised administrative choice that haunts his reputation to this day. With Perkins's abrupt resignation to return to pro football as head coach at Tampa Bay, Thomas used a search committee of (again in hindsight) suspect insight to hire a football coach.
The process was botched. Instead of finding an athletics director and delegating to him the chore of hiring a football coach, Thomas presented on the same day the new football coach and the new athletics director (both chosen by Thomas). Thus, Athletics Director Steve Sloan – one of Bama's favorite sons – was shackled by an unfavorite head football coach.
About a year after hiring Bill Curry as head football coach, Thomas left Alabama to become president at Penn State. Thus, Thomas had the experience of serving as president to two of the nation's most famous football coaches in Bryant and Penn State's Joe Paterno.
After retiring to Tuscaloosa, Dr. Thomas could delight in saying that Bill Curry was the only Alabama football coach who went undefeated against Penn State.
Thomas's academic ascension started in Holt, on the outskirts (then) of Tuscaloosa. He was the son of educated parents, a school superintendent and music teacher.
He went on academic scholarship to Harvard, where he earned bachelor's, master's, and doctorate in biology. He later taught at Harvard and then at Alabama, where he rose to vice president for student affairs. He then became president at North Carolina State, and from there was lured back to Bama as president.
It was often noted that he had turned down athletics scholarships to accept the academics grant to Harvard, and he stayed interested in athletics.
Perkins had a gimmick for his first A-Day game, an alumni game in which former players would play against the Tide. The first play was a crowd-pleaser, Thomas at tailback (wearinbg jersey No. 1) around right end. A young linebacker, Cornelius Bennett, showed good judgment in making as gentle a tackle as possible.
Thomas gave me an interesting story one evening at a cocktail party. I realized it was a trial balloon, but was anxious to write it nevertheless.
He told me he was thinking about replacing Bryant-Denny Stadium with a new stadium halfway between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. (This was at a time when Legion Field in Birmingham was considered at least as much Alabama's home field as Bryant-Denny.)
I wrote the story and it received barely a ripple of interest. (This was also pre-Internet and, basically, pre-talk radio.) The Associated Press called me about the story and ran it. Again, no one seemed to have feelings on one side or the other. I never heard another thing about it and in later years never brought it up to Dr. Thomas.
Until a few years ago he was an avid golfer and we played at the same club, so I saw him somewhat regularly. He was a delight to play with, in part because he was a good player and fine competitor, but also because of his knowledge in his chosen academic field, biology. Walking the course, he would point out interesting trees and other florae. And so, unlike with many golf companions from whom one learns only new profanities, there was true knowledge from Dr. Thomas.
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