Charles “Bubba” Thornton has worn many different hats – and at least a couple different helmets – throughout his adult life. Track & field athlete, college football player, professional football player, football coach, athletic director and track & field coach are all titles he’s held at some point over the past half century.
The common thread between each and every one? Thornton’s commitment to excellence.
Following a brief professional football career as a wide receiver for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and the World Football League’s Jacksonville Sharks/Express, it was in track & field where his career eventually flourished.
The Texas native spent a combined 31 years at the helm of the track & field programs at his alma mater TCU – where he played football and lettered in track for two years – and then Texas. Between his days in Fort Worth and Austin, he coached athletes to a combined 35 NCAA event titles, more than 300 All-America honors, and 161 conference championships.
Many of those athletes – including international standouts Leo Manzano, Trey Hardee, Raymond Stewart, Mark Boswell and Marquise Goodwin – went on to compete at the Olympics, some multiple times. He personally oversaw Manzano and Hardee at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as the head men’s track & field coach for Team USA.
His squads – especially those at Texas – were almost always in the forefront of the national conversation in one way or another. Athletes from Thornton-coached athletes won national event titles in 20 of his 31 seasons as a head coach, and his teams finished top-15 at the NCAA Outdoor Championships 13 times, including four top-five finishes. Those teams won 16 conference titles in the Southwest Conference and the Big 12.
Thornton’s coaching career began not in track & field, however, but on the gridiron. After hanging up the pro football cleats, he took on the dual responsibility of head football coach and athletic director at Keller High School in Texas from 1977 through 1981.
He rejoined his alma mater in 1982, and over the course of the next 13 years would turn his Horned Frogs into national contenders in the sprints. Right away his men won the NCAA Outdoor 4×400 title in 1983, but TCU would become an even bigger name in the 4×100 in just a few short years. His men won their first 400-meter relay title in 1986 and went on to reclaim it in 1987, 1989, 1991 and Thornton’s TCU finale in 1995.
Thornton watched in 1989 as the quartet of Horatio Porter, Andrew Smith, Greg Sholars and Raymond Stewart covered 400 meters in 38.23A on the track in Provo, Utah, for a new collegiate record. Nearly three decades later, that mark still stands as the collegiate record. Stewart, for his part, won three individual NCAA titles in his career and went on to become a three-time Olympic finalist at 100 meters.
In 1996, Thornton made the move three hours south to the University of Texas to head up the Longhorn men’s program. His impact was felt immediately in Austin, as his men finished fifth at the NCAA Outdoor Championships and claimed the SWC title in what would be Texas’ final season in the conference before departing for the Big 12. At NCAAs, Richard Duncan won the national long jump title before going on to compete in his first of two Olympic Games.
In 1997, his men posted Texas’ all-time best finish at the NCAA Championships with a runner-up effort, weeks after winning their first of five Big 12 titles under Thornton’s watch. With titles in 1997 and 1999, 2003 and 2006, and in his final year coaching in 2013, his men claimed Big 12 outdoor crowns in three different decades.
Seven more times his men finished top-10 at the NCAA Outdoor Championships during his 18-year tenure, including a third-place finish in 2006 and a fourth-place effort in 2008. The latter included a trio of national titles from Leo Manzano, Jacob Hernandez and Maston Wallace. He capped his career with back-to-back top-10 finishes in 2012 (tied for ninth) and 2013 (sixth).
Indoors, he had his Longhorns up to fifth-place nationally by 1999. That would be a prelude for a streak of seven consecutive seasons in which his men finished top-10 at the NCAA Indoor Championships. The height of that run came between 2006 and 2008, as his teams finished fourth, third and third, respectively.
At the conference level during the winter, his men claimed their first of six Big 12 titles under Thornton in 1999, followed by four-straight from 2006 through 2009 (including a co-title with Nebraska in 2007) and another in 2013 – again winning conference titles in three different decades.
Thornton retired from coaching the Longhorns in 2013.