Few individuals have dedicated their lives to not only developing track & field and cross country, but using the sports in their hometowns to develop outstanding young men and women, so totally as did the late long-time Southern University coach Johnny Thomas.
A lifetime resident of Baton Rouge, La., Thomas devoted much of his adult life, until he lost his battle with cancer in June of 2009, to coaching high-achieving teams and student-athletes at Southern for 20 years, while also opening the world of track & field up to youth and high school student-athletes throughout the region.
All the way until his death he remained the head coach of the track & field and cross country programs at Southern, the school at which he competed as a standout sprinter in the early 1960s and from which he graduated with his bachelor’s and master’s degrees – a testament to the “never-give-up” attitude he instilled in each of his student-athletes throughout the years.
Those student-athletes – many of whom were walk-ons who developed and flourished under Thomas’ tutelage – followed his example to 45 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles between men’s and women’s track & field and cross country over the course of two decades.
In 1991 he led the Jaguar men to the program’s first outdoor league title in 20 years in 1991, kicking off a 13-year span that saw Southern win 11 outdoor team titles and eight indoor crowns. His women achieved similar success after breaking through for their first-ever SWAC title in 1994 and winning eight outdoor and nine indoor crowns through 2004.
His Jaguars achieved success on the national stage, as well. In addition to nine men and three women scoring at the NCAA Outdoor Championships during his tenure, he coached 2003 NCAA Division I indoor long jump champion Brian Johnson. Johnson later went on to represent Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Prior to taking over at Southern in 1987, he served as a volunteer coach for three years. He also coached Southern University Lab Laboratory girls to three consecutive high school state championships, and formed Baton Rouge’s Track Club for Girls and later the Baton Rouge Express Track Club for ages 7-18.