Bob Thomason's coaching career flashes life-lessons that beam far beyond the basketball court.
We like to think we were a part of his growth, given the fact he cut his coaching teeth at Escalon, Turlock, Columbia College and Cal State Stanislaus. But to hear him tell it recently, these stops weren't exactly designed as stepping stones toward a greater goal.
Thomason, 64, enjoyed each of these ports of call. Better still, he understood their importance toward his return to his alma mater, University of the Pacific. And isn't that the way it's supposed to be to savor the journey at least as much as the destination?
To him, it never was about sneaker contracts, TV exposure or a bigger school in a bigger arena. If so, he would have bolted from Pacific years ago. If he coached solely for cash, he wouldn't have stayed in the area for 15 years.
More than 100 former and current players, boosters and students heard the Thomason message last month when he announced his retirement effective after next season.
"It wasn't like I was trying to make money coaching basketball," he told them. "I was coaching the game."
Was he ever.
Thomason took no shortcuts and didn't climb on others' backs. Simply, he worked from the bottom up, coached his players and won games. At each stop, his teams won at least one league championship.
We especially remember the unbeaten Escalon Cougars of 1976, the ground he prepared at Columbia for the Claim Jumpers' glory years under Denny Aye, and his successful rebuilding job at Stanislaus.
A recent chat with Thomason, however, revealed the obvious: Those weren't just passing hello's. He and wife Jerri were raising their two sons, and their family's maturation coincided with his career moves.
"My plan was to just be a high school assistant coach at Stagg. It wasn't to be at a bigger school," he said. "I thought I would be at Turlock High for a while. I wasn't interested in Columbia, and then I got an itch. The only reason I left (Stanislaus) was because it was Pacific."
Thomason inherited a mess 24 years ago in Stockton a losing program under probation and an office devoid of a secretary or even air conditioning. The job wasn't, and still isn't, a plum.
Recruiting players for Pacific requires patience, commitment and self-awareness. Thomason walked all avenues, from community colleges to the preps to overseas recruits, for the student-athlete who would excel at UOP.
He found enough of them from Christian Maraker to Miah Davis (ex-Modesto Junior College and Stanislaus) to David Doubley to Michael Olowokandi to become the Big West Conference's all-time winningest coach.
Six Big West regular-season titles, three conference titles and five coach-of-the-year honors followed. He crafted nine seasons of 20-plus wins, including winning streaks of 16 (three times) and 22 games. If you couldn't defend against Thomason's precise half-court offense, you fast-tracked toward a loss.
Thomason escorted four teams into the NCAA Tournament, and the valley rejoiced over the Tigers' back-to-back first-round victories over Big East powers Providence and Pittsburgh.
His greatest legacy, however, is the stability and credibility of his program. Ninety-percent of his players graduated and hardly ever did his team or staff embarrass its school. That's quite a feat in the pressurized hide-your-eyes, win-or-else world of college basketball.
Thomason's exit is perfectly timed. Crowds have dwindled and so has the buzz in Pacific hoops in recent years. But Thomason has coupled his retirement with UOP's move in 2013 into the West Coast Conference, an ideal fit for the Tigers.
They'll have to accelerate their game against such heavyweights as Gonzaga, Brigham Young and St. Mary's. The challenge is not that far removed from Pacific's Big West collisions years ago against Fresno State and UNLV.
Thomason will receive his farewell tour next season, his 25th, with a team he expects to improve from last year's 11-19 product. Then he'll pass on nine returning players to his successor.
"It's very important to me that when I leave, there would be a good team coming back," he said. "If I had to leave after this season, I wouldn't be happy."
He has earned his end-game on his own terms. In an era during which coaches dart here and there after barely introducing themselves to their players, or they're bounced after angry alums deem a 28-win season not good enough, Thomason's dignified run at Pacific is refreshing.
He's bothered by only one regret.
"It goes by faster than you think."
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2302.
THE BOB THOMASON FILE
Stagg High (assistant coach) 1970-72 53-0
Escalon High (head coach) 1973-76 66-17
Turlock High (head coach) 1976-81 84-54
Columbia College (head coach) 1981-85 75-49
Cal State Stanislaus (head coach) 1985-88 52-27
Pacific (head coach) 1988-present 414-309