Thomas will return as head basketball coach

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Big stage

Dillon boys basketball coach Terry Thomas is shown courtside during his team’s 2017 state A championship run at the Butte Civic Center. Under his direction, the Beavers have won five state titles. Thomas recently retired from teaching at BCHS, but will return to coach basketball. Terri Haverfield photo

He’s retired, but staying

Beaverhead County High School coach and teacher Terry Thomas spent his last afternoon before retirement getting things ready for his successor in the classroom, whomever that may be. Thomas’ 32-year stint as a full-time teacher and coach in Dillon came to a quiet conclusion Friday afternoon, with no fanfare, no firetruck ride, no special announcement. The good news is, he’s coming back.

“As of right now, I am the basketball coach, and I plan on being the basketball coach next year,” said Thomas of his plan since submitting his retirement letter to BCHS Superintendent Gary Haverfield in early November. Complicating the matter, Thomas had a health issue on Thanksgiving Day, a few weeks before the BCHS Board of Trustees formally accepted his retirement request. Thomas would miss a number of weeks of practice, and then returned to practice, at first in a limited role before taking over the varsity boys basketball team full-time. The plan in place when he submitted his letter had been worked out over the past few years. Thomas would retire, remain basketball coach, and return to the classroom in some form of part-time status. Due to the timing and circumstances, Beaver Nation felt they had lost the school’s greatest coach of all time.

“They changed some rules around in the last five or six years and a few of them made it a lot tougher to do what I’m doing, and a couple just recently kind of helped out the process a little bit,” explained Thomas. “At this particular moment in time, everything kind of fit together to be able to retire now and then have some options to get started in the fall.”

The rules Thomas speaks of were put in place to ensure that when an employee retired, they indeed retired, and didn’t simply accept another job within the structure of the workplace and draw two checks – retirement and payroll.

The two key elements that will allow this equation to balance out are Thomas’ age of 60, and the fact that he retired on the last day of the third quarter, March 23. When school resumes in the fall, he will have been retired at least 150 days, and will be able to be rehired by the school district in a part-time capacity.

“Obviously, I’ve had some health issues that threw a different light on stuff, but if it was a choice of walking away and not coaching again, I think it would be very hard to do, and I’m not sure I would be in a position to do that yet,” said Thomas in his classroom on Friday. “But having the opportunity to have part-time work in a school system next year, it makes it a lot easier. It allows me, as I get older, to be able to continue to try to do it at a high level.”

Six years ago, the matter wouldn’t even have been a concern. Thomas could have finished the school year and retired. In the fall, he could have picked up some classes here and there and then when basketball season rolled around, he would have been able to put a team together and begin pursuit of yet another state championship. But the coach is a planner and he follows the rules.

“It is a little bit complicated,” said the National Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee. “Obviously, they want you to retire and not continue to work like nothing happened. You are limited on earned income and a variety of different issues. My age and the 150 days were key.”

Thomas didn’t plan on having health issues involving his heart. While he downplays the seriousness of the incident, those close to the coach were praying for their friend who worked out five of seven days a week. Thomas lifted weights, worked on his “cardio,” and ate a healthy diet.

“Obviously, the things that are eye-opening about it are how precious time is. That is something I look at a little bit different,” said the coach. “It is important right now to retire from full-time teaching with opportunities maybe to do part-time, because I feel like I need a little more time to smell the roses and spend more time with my family. At the same time, loving what I do is coaching.

“The other thing is just how important feeling healthy is.”

Thomas began his teaching career at Lewistown, serving as an assistant football and basketball coach. He applied for a permanent job at Fergus County High School, but the administration went in a different direction as did Thomas. After a year in Lewistown, he was off to Wolf Point for a four-year stint as a teacher, head football coach and assistant basketball coach. A job opened in Dillon and the Beavers made their best-ever hire.

“Gary Love was just on the school board and he was on the hiring committee,” recalled Thomas. “It started an awesome 32-year work relationship and it obviously, also grew into a tremendous friendship.”

That same year, the board hired Craig Finberg as the head boys basketball coach. Thomas coached football and they each served on the others coaching staff. Thomas recalls Dennis Kimzey as the superintendent at that time, and Tedd Stanisich as a veteran teacher and coach already on the staff. Shortly after, the school hired Brett Carver, Rick Nordahl, and a little later, Steve Vezina, all key teachers and coaches at the school that pulled together and put in motion the Golden Age of Beaver Athletics. A few years after he hired on, Thomas was able to convince local businessman Ted Ori, a college buddy from their University of Montana days, to get on board with the coaching staff.

“What a fortunate thing for me to work with all of those people,” Thomas said. “It took some time, but everybody was pointing in the right direction, and then all of the support from the community, from Western and the middle school, I couldn’t have found a better place to work.”

The results began to roll in starting in 1990 when the Beaver basketball team won the Montana Class A state championship under the direction of Craig Finberg with assistants Terry Thomas and Cary Finberg. it was Dillon’s first state title of any kind since 1946. Winning is habit forming and the school began hoisting state title banners, a habit that continues to this day. Prior to 1990, the school had won three state titles, all in boys basketball (1920, 1936, and 1946). The school now boasts 26 state championship banners at B.W. Lodge Gym, and Thomas has influenced the entire process.

The Beavers won five class A state football championships with Thomas as head coach. In the time since Thomas stepped away, Rick Nordahl added three more state football titles. As surprising as it sounds, the Beaver basketball program has been even more successful with Thomas as the head man. He has averaged almost 20 wins a season over 13 years and his teams have won five state titles and played for the championship in 8 of the past 12 years.

“The process is what is important, and obviously, whatever outcome you have is part of the process,” explained Thomas. “When we talk about the lifting weights, and when we talk about the open gyms and throwing the football over the years, it was fun and enjoyable, just as much in practice as it was in the games, and it was due to the coaches and players that we had.”

Thomas speaks of kids with discipline and work ethic and community support when he tries to explain the successes his teams have had. He raves about the continuity in coaching staffs and the different administrations that have supported the coaches and programs through his years at the school.

“The leadership that is started from the school board on down through the superintendent and administration makes a big difference in both the success and the enjoyment and the pleasure of coming to work everyday,” said Thomas. “It was kind of a perfect storm for me to come in at the time that I did with the folks that I did and make a run at the on-the-fieldtype of things.”

Through it all, the tough early years in football, the successes, the wins and losses, Terry Thomas has remained a humble, respectful man. He is respectful of the feelings and dignity of his players, the opposition, the other coaches and the referees. He is among the most respected high school coaches in the state of Montana, and yet he defers credit to all of those around him that are part of the program.

“I think it is a reflection of everything that I’ve been part of. It humbles me,” said the championship coach of the statewide respect he has earned. “I think it is a really cool thing to have some people respect what you do. I’m very appreciative of that, but I think it is also a sign of the entire group of folks working on the same sort of goals and different things that we’ve had over the years. I just happened to be the head coach, so I got a lot of the credit for some of those things along the way.”

As he sat as his desk at BCHS on his final day as a full-time member of the staff, Thomas admitted that his transition to retirement and the meaning of that had not really hit him yet. He did have thoughts on why he still enjoyed coming to school every day, even after 37 years in the profession.

“Everything from the coaches and teachers and administrators to the kids that we’ve had gone through, we’ve been very blessed and very fortunate,” related Thomas. “I have so many tremendous memories both in the school and on the fields and courts. It is hard to put it all in perspective, partly due to all the great folks, and partly due to all the successes we were able to get along the way.”

Thomas has come to the forefront as a coach and leader of young men. He has combined strategy and physical training with the ability to inspire a positive mental approach to accomplishing goals and more often than not, his players have stood atop the award stand with the first place trophy. Those abilities of a great coach are what makes great teachers.

“For the 37 years that I’ve been teaching, part of the reason I feel so good about it is, I had fun with the students that we’ve had,” Thomas explained. “Obviously, that means that the students had great discipline, worked hard, were nice to be around, and I just enjoyed it every year.

“I guess if you’re going to be in any type of business for however long, you want to love it and enjoy it, and I certainly did.”