May 23, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin’s new director of football operations, Jason Thomas, has always had a plan. But it wasn’t until he blew out his knee in the first game of his senior year of high school that it all began to crystallize in his mind, especially the need to be proactive in mapping out his future.
“When I tore my ACL, I had offers and (recruiting) trips set up,” said Thomas, who discovered how fleeting some commitments can be and how quickly it can all be taken away from an athlete. “At the end of the day, I didn’t recognize the business aspect of college athletics.”
Thomas, a 6-foot-3, 204-pound wide receiver, rehabbed from the injury and ended up playing in the final two games of the regular season and the playoffs for Temecula Valley (Calif.) High School. Although some recruiters may have backed off, he still wound up signing at Utah State.
“I definitely kind of adopted this philosophy where you always have to be 21 points ahead in life,” said Thomas, who redshirted as a freshman and then played sparingly over two seasons -- mainly on special teams -- before getting injured again, going on a medical scholarship and serving as a student-assistant coach.
By then, he had already concluded “Life is short, athletics is short” and thus reasoned, “When negative things happen, whether it’s a knee injury or whatever it may be, if you’re not ahead of the game, you’re going to be playing from behind and it’s always harder to dig yourself out of that hole.”
Thomas had a safety net.
“I valued education,” he said.
It was a gift from his parents, James and Crystal Thomas.
“I believe education is the one thing that can’t be taken away from you,” Jason Thomas said. “It definitely empowers you and opens up many doors. I came to Utah State originally wanting to go to a place where I would be able to play the game that I loved and get a world-class education.”
While unable to realize his expectations as a college athlete, he was undaunted and unbowed. “I had a plan,” said Thomas, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and human resource management, “and that plan allowed me to move forward even though I had those setbacks.”
He would be reminded again of the business aspect of sports when Utah State fired head coach Mick Dennehy, who had recruited Thomas. Dennehy, who had a five-year record of 19-37, was replaced by Brent Guy (who was fired after going 9-38, opening the door for his successor, Gary Andersen.)
Thomas had considered becoming a football graduate assistant but the timing wasn’t right.
“So I kind of had a game plan where I wanted to work for a year and then come back for my master’s,” said Thomas, who packed his bags and left the Utah State campus in Logan and worked in retail management. He ran a Christian clothing store in southern California.
“I did that for about a year,” he said, “with the plan of getting married in August (to Dayna Barrett, who was competing as a Utah State heptathlete when they met) and moving back to Logan to do my master’s. It was kind of just sticking with that plan and moving forward with it.”
|“I’ve adopted a similar philosophy to Coach Andersen,” Thomas said. “I’ve approached everything with that same mindset trying
to always get better, trying always to be prepared, trying to always be 21 points ahead of the game.”
After completing his master’s degree in corporate wellness -- “That degree program kind of emphasizes that if you take care of your employees and they’re healthy, they’re going to be more productive,” he said -- the plan called for Thomas to reach out and help student-athletes by sharing his experiences.
Pursuing a career in coaching was not a goal despite enjoying his earlier stint on the sidelines.
“For me, I wanted the ability to facilitate change,” said Thomas, “and I think from an administrative standpoint, you have that ability more globally rather than individually in the kids' lives, so that was kind of the direction that I saw myself going.”
That pursuit led him to the Student-Athlete Academic Services staff at Utah State in May of 2008. Thomas was an academic advisor/tutor coordinator until January of 2009 when he was promoted to assistant athletics director under the senior associate AD, Dr. Brian Evans, a mentor.
Thomas has bunkered down with football as an academic counselor the past six years in Logan. But he has also worked in a counseling capacity with men’s and women’s track, tennis and women’s basketball. In a sense, he has gone to school on diversity.
“Each student-athlete is different,” he said, “The philosophy that I’ve developed is that you have to be all things to all people. In working with these different sports, each kid, each sport is different in their approach to life and academics and from a motivational standpoint.
“For track student-athletes, there’s a team aspect to their sport. But it’s really individual, so how you work with and advise those students is going to be different than dealing with the football student-athlete where it’s the ultimate team game. That kind of rounded me.
“Even within football, you’re going to have athletes that need to be advised in a different manner, that need to be approached in a different manner, that need to be motivated in a different manner. It’s important to recognize those differences and needs and to be able to meet them.’
Thomas teamed with Andersen while the latter was overhauling the Utah State program. It was because Thomas “had developed a relationship” with Andersen and his coaching staff as far as “knowing what they’re about and having the same mission and values” that the UW job had such appeal.
“I’ve adopted a similar philosophy to Coach Andersen,” Thomas said. “If you take care of yourself academically and socially, athletics will always take care of itself. The type of man and woman you are in the classroom is going to have a direct reflection on the type you are on the field of play.
“I’ve approached everything with that same mindset trying to always get better, trying always to be prepared, trying to always be 21 points ahead of the game. If you do, you will put yourself in a situation where you will be successful in your sport, in your academic pursuits and in your life.”
Utah State annually led the Western Athletic Conference in academic all-league honorees during its membership in the WAC from 2005 to 2013. Most recently, the Aggies football team tied for fourth among FBS teams in the NCAA Academic Progress Rate. Wisconsin was No. 3, trailing only Duke and Northwestern. That’s pretty select company.
Academic compatibility -- and/or accountability -- was another selling point for Thomas.
“All Coach (Andersen) had to tell me is that’s definitely what this place is all about,” he said.
As it is, Thomas is not a complete stranger to his new mailing address in the Midwest.
“My dad is originally from Detroit, so I actually grew up following the Big Ten as a kid,” he said.
Much of Thomas’ discipline can also be traced to his father.
“My dad instilled that in me early,” he said. “Discipline is a key to success in any aspect of life.”
James Thomas, now retired, was in the Air Force for 20 years. Jason, in fact, was born in Spain. The family later relocated to Fairchild Air Force Base (just southwest of Spokane, Washington) before establishing roots in the Moreno Valley, almost equidistant between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Jason Thomas has only visited Madison twice: once when Utah State played here in 2012 and on his job interview. “I got a small taste,” he said, “and I enjoyed the people and what I saw. It’s a good fit.”
Beyond that, he knows his geography; he knows that he’s now about a 14-hour drive from Dayna’s family in Ottawa, Canada, meaning their two young boys will be closer to their grandparents.
It’s never easy to uproot. But Andersen can be a pretty efficient closer. So after Thomas had the necessary conversations with his wife and Andersen, he knew exactly what he had to do: take the job.
“We’re going to be at an institution,” Thomas said, “that serves the same value -- education -- empowering young men and women and winning with that tradition.”
That’s always been part of the plan.