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This old Tiger can still go

STOCKTON — The University of the Pacific Tigers led UC Riverside 38-28 Saturday night, and coach Bob Thomason was livid.

He liked the lead, of course, a tonic after losses in three of their last four games. But in Thomason's eyes, his team's overall hustle didn't match the coach's expectations.

"I don't remember being that upset this season," Thomason admitted. "And look what good it did. We came out flat in the second half."

No matter, at least on this night. Thomason's message eventually took hold, and the Tigers disposed of the Big West Conference's worst team 86-66. Trouble is, the Tigers (9-14, 5-5) have exasperated their veteran coach all year.

"We kind of think that one play isn't a big deal," he complained after the game. "We have to think that every play is a big deal."

I bet his team has heard that message more than once.

And after Pacific's record-setting three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and three straight Big West regular-season titles, digesting a sub-par season requires a tough swallow.

"He (Thomason) did let out his emotions. He reminded us everything we did wrong," said sophomore Steffan Johnson, the gifted guard who's been up-and-down like many of his teammates.

"We need him to be fired up and intense. He tells us during every practice to fight."

As Thomason and his staff wonder if they've pulled the most from this team, a reminder: Pacific is fortunate to have such a seasoned leader.

Thomason, 57, has coached in the valley — from Turlock to Columbia to Stockton — for 36 years. One below-average season is not going to change him, nor should it.

His career curve reveals more than his words. He and wife Jerri raised their two sons in Turlock (while he coached at Cal State Stanislaus) and later in Stockton.

If he had aspirations for a more prestigious coaching address, he crossed that bridge a long time ago. Simply, he recognized that his alma mater proved to be the perfect fit for him.

Put it this way: Two years after he escorted the Tigers into the NCAA Tournament for the first time under his watch (1997), his team free-fell to 11-18. And the year before the Tigers' incredible three-year run, they went 12-16.

If he hiked expectations and then slumped at a Pacific 10 Conference school, would he have survived the predictable call for his job?

Conversely, there have been no ifs in Stockton.

Thomason inherited a losing program saddled with probation 19 years ago and rallied it back to respectability and, eventually, surprising success.

Better still, his teams never have crossed sabers with the NCAA. The program is cleaner than Saturday's rainfall.

And if you think Thomason has settled for that squeaky-clearn rep — especially while his team slowly drifts back to earth this season — think again.

"Someone told me the other day that I'm really earning my money this season. I told him, 'I really earned it the last three seasons,'" Thomason said. "The distractions from other people I'm not letting that stuff affect the job I do. The challenge is to get your kids to play up to their potential. That's all coaching is.

"That part never changes."

Thomason never rushed his climb. He put his name on the coaching map by going 27-0 at Escalon in 1976, 25-5 at Turlock in 1981, 48 total wins at Columbia in 1984 and '85 and a Northern California Athletic Conference title at Stanislaus.

How many coaches ply their trade in the same area for 15 years before they get their big chance a short car drive away?

Very few.

"Sometimes, I question if I have too much patience," he admitted.

Without doubt, his patience has been stretched this season. The Tigers are paying a predictable price for losing 10 program-enhancing seniors, including bellwether Christian Maraker, during the past two years. Four are waiting as redshirts, though three were forced to the sidelines by injuries. Illnesses, injuries and inconsistency have walked lockstep with this team from the beginning.

The Tigers' building mode could have been eased had they caught a couple of breaks on the recruiting trail.

Cal's Ryan Anderson, one of the Pac 10's top freshmen, chose the Golden Bears over Pacific. Another Bear who nearly selected Pacific was Theo Robertson.

Then again, these are familiar disappointments for a mid-major. To his credit, Thomason accepts the hand he's dealt and draws the most from it.

"We did a great job getting down to the final two with Anderson," he said. "If everyone was great all the time, (Jim) Calhoun (the UConn coach) would be undefeated every year. All you can do is try to improve things every day. You keep stretching yourself as hard as you can given the limitations.

"For us, it's all about developing players and getting a little lucky."

Thomason envisions five more years on the bench.

"After that, we'll see." he said. "I'm not done doing good things."

Pacific should tell him, "Stay as long as you please."

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at 578-2302 or ragostini@modbee.com.

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