Coach’s chair: Paul Thomas, St. Mary’s College

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Tod Fierner, Saint Mary's Athletics.
Paul Thomas enters his tenth season at St. Mary’s College this year. Photo by Tod Fierner, Saint Mary’s Athletics.

Paul Thomas enters his tenth season at St. Mary’s this year, where he has quietly become one of the most winning coaches in the West. He was West Coast Conference co-coach of the year for 2014-2015, which saw the Gaels advance to the WNIT quarterfinals. Prior to St. Mary’s Thomas was head coach at Cal Poly Pomona for 12 years, where he guided them to back-to-back Division II championships in 2001 and 2002. Thomas has coached the all-time points leader, five of the 10 top scorers, the top two rebounders and the top two three-point shooters in St. Mary’s history during his tenure. He is the father of three children.

Sue Favor: Last year saw you get WCC co-coach of the year, and your team advance to the WNIT quarterfinals. What made last season special?

Paul Thomas: I really do believe each year is special; special is just a weird word. We were in the quarterfinals in 2013 also. I think last year’s team was satisfying because the previous year we lost three exceptional players: (all-time leading rebounder) Danielle Maudlin, (point guard) Kate Gaze, with her presence on the court, and Jackie Nared, a tremendous player. So we’d lost a lot. Last year doing what we did was very satisfying, not only for me but our players had a chip on their shoulder. It’s a chemistry thing. We had great chemistry last year. Not that we had bad chemistry before. But the chemistry was new and it worked. A lot of them were on the 2013 team, too.

With chemistry, there’s addition through subtraction and subtraction through addition.

I’ve had a lot of people ask me, ‘how are you so consistent?’ It’s all about the players. We don’t get All-Americans, as we’re a small private school. But we do recruit kids who understand what their goals are, and they understand how life moves along. They can get and hold conversation. We have a good consistent group, and they’re in line with the coaching staff.

Sue Favor: You’ve done very well for the last 26 years at smaller schools. Do you like that size and that atmosphere, or are you planning to move to a larger school?

Paul Thomas: I’m never planning on my next move. I didn’t coach at Cal Poly Pomona for my next move. I don’t have one foot out the door – I love St. Mary’s College. I love the people I work with on a daily basis, mainly my three assistant coaches. But if someone called me with an offer I couldn’t refuse, then sure.

Sue Favor: You’ve coached some of the best statistical athletes ever at St. Mary’s. Was that by design or coincidence?

Paul Thomas: It was by design. We do a good job with developing people, and we try to recruit multi-skilled people and develop those skills to fit what we do. Louella Tomlinson was the NCAA all-time shot blocker; I hate blocked shots. We didn’t recruit her because of that. We recruited her because she was long and well-developed. I told her when I recruited her that I didn’t like shot blocking and she and her mother laughed. I saw what she could do and we worked on helping her to develop her game.

Sue Favor: What’s a typical practice like for you?

Paul Thomas: We normally do individuals or small groups to start. Yesterday we did that; six of them come in and we work on ball handling, for instance. Yesterday we were working on decision-making. We focused on defense. The reason we break them up is we get more reps, and from that they improve at a higher rate. If you have a group of 12 and it’s a two-minute shooting drill, you may get up two shots; in a group of six you get up 30 shots. Players like it for more reps, and coaches like that approach because it facilitates more focus.

Then the whole team comes in and we warm up and stretch and begin our transition drills, then we put them all together. We don’t spend a lot of time doing breakdown drills.

Sue Favor: How do you balance work and family?

Paul Thomas: My kids have always been really involved. I struggle answering this because it’s really a lifestyle. My kids understand. The biggest struggle with college basketball is that the down time is minimalized because of the recruiting. I rarely take a call during dinner – small things like that. They understand that if we’re driving in the car and I have to take a call from a recruit that they have to turn the radio down. They understand the value of a recruit.

Sue Favor: What is your greatest joy in coaching?

Paul Thomas: My greatest joy is the day-to-day interactions with the people in my silo, meaning the players here and my coaching staff. I love that – I can’t imagine doing anything else.

The other thing is being in touch with so many former players you’ve coached – decades ago, not even years. When you can have an exchange, that’s why I coach. There is and will always be a connection there. There’s no substitution for that little tiny moment of joy when you open up your Facebook when you see a post or a happy birthday wish from someone that you’ve coached.

Sue Favor: What is the most rewarding experience in 26 years of coaching? Best year?

Paul Thomas: Winning the first national champ at Cal Poly Pomona was very special. There are not many people who can grab that trophy and hold it above their head – I don’t care what level or what sport. When you hold up an NCAA trophy, there’s not many people who get to do that. The first year we were the underdogs and we beat three power houses. That would be a highlight.

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