Golden Turtle In South Florida

Turtle Thomas returns to Miami to coach FIU


Feb. 8, 2008

By Douglas Kroll

CSTV.com

 

DOUG KROLL
Doug Kroll is an editor for CSTV.com, focusing on baseball.
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Some people are lucky enough in life where everything they touch turns to gold.

 

In college baseball, that's Turtle Thomas.

 

He had offers in the past to take over programs. But Thomas turned them down, one by one. Never finding one that was the right fit at the right time.

 

Instead, Thomas continued his unbelievable success as an assistant coach with some of the best programs in the nation. Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami, LSU and Arizona State have all been stops in his 30 year collegiate coaching career.

 

But now, that nameplate on the door finally says head coach, and he's back in the City of Miami, this time with FIU.

 

He's regarded as one of the best recruiters in the country, and that's tough to argue with when you look at his track record. The native of North Carolina has been to the College World Series more than any active coach, making it to Omaha 14 times with four different programs.

 

Most recently he helped guide the Sun Devils to the CWS in 2007, his only year in Tempe with coach Pat Murphy.

 

So why leave one of the best teams in the country to take over a Golden Panthers program that finished second to last in the Sun Belt in 2007?

 

Timing is everything.

 

"I've had a couple opportunities that either were too cold of places or financially it wasn't a good fit," Thomas said. "I spent 12 years in Miami and got to know the coaches, the area and the people real well. I also had a home here that I never sold, so I got to move right back in."

 

FIU may not have the same ring to it as his previous stops, but that doesn't mean the potential isn't there for something special in Miami besides that monster program that sits only miles across town.

 

But first they'll have to overcome the previous regime. When Danny Price was fired as head coach back in May, it came as a bit of a surprise to some.

 

Price had been the head coach for 28 years, and was a player and an assistant as well. But the team finished with the worst APR of any team in the nation in baseball, and of any FIU athletic program. This resulted in a loss of the max 1.12 scholarships from the baseball program.

 

New Athletic Director Pete Garcia said it was just time for a change for a program that was looking to build its athletics into a power. Tough to argue with when the team hasn't made the postseason in five years and has seen attendance dwindle down to less than 500 fans per game.

 

The resources are certainly there to rebuild the Panthers into a contender.

 

"We've got 38,000 students that go to FIU and with such a great area for recruiting," Thomas said, "FIU is a great untapped resource. It's a great academic school in so many areas as well."

 

His players couldn't be happier to have a guy in charge with the pedigree that Thomas brings back to town. The only stop Thomas has been without an appearance in Omaha was with the Yellow Jackets, and maybe that was only because he was there for two seasons.

 

There's only one player that is entering his fourth season at FIU, and senior infielder Corey Lozano can't wait to surprise some people in 2008.

 

"It's awesome to have coach Thomas," pitcher Evan Ellison said. "He's had so much experience in the College World Series, it's just a great thing to have him here. I think we're going to surprise a lot of people and make the tournament. I can't wait to show people what we're made of."

 

And it's more than just about surprising the nation and making a run for a Sun Belt title this year, and perhaps turning the Golden Panthers into a powerhouse.

 

While any player or coach in a Florida International uniform would love to knock off the cross-town Hurricanes (as underrated a rivalry as it gets in college baseball), the focus is the Sun Belt. FIU was a team that was consistently a shoe-in into the NCAA tournament during the 1990s, and now has a coach leading the way that isn't used to losing, and won't tolerate it either.

 

"He's a perfectionist," Lozano said. "He doesn't settle for anything less than perfection, and if we don't do something right, we do it again and again until we get it right. Everyone had a clean slate and had to reprove themselves."

 

But his new players still consider him to be a player's coach. That's something that could go a long way in the recruiting wars that are bound to heat him in South Florida. With so much talent, there has always been enough to go around between the likes of Miami, Florida, Florida State and even Stetson, UCF and FAU. Add in the Golden Panthers now to that equation and the rivalries are sure to heat up not just on the recruiting trail, but on the grass and dirt as well.

 

Thomas' departure from Miami was a bit of a  mystery following the 1999 national championship season, but there's something that has to be said for his 19 straight Top 10 recruiting classes and two national titles he's been apart of.

 

"Luckily over the years the head coaches I've worked under gave me a lot of responsibility," Thomas said. "Every coach had specialties of the game that they were extremely good at. Ron Fraser was very good at marketing the game and raising money, while Skip Bertman was good at calling the game, pitch-by-pitch. Pat Murphy is just outstanding in every facet of the game, and has a unique way of motivating the team."

 

His streak of Top 10 recruiting classes may be in jeopardy this year, but no one's saying he needed one in his first season in the saddle. Thomas needs to worry about his '08 Golden Panthers first, when USC comes to FIU Baseball Stadium to open the season in two weeks. Then there's that trip out to Tempe to face the team he just left, and a guy in coach Murphy who means a lot to him.

 

But there will surely be some laughs before the first pitch.

 

"Coach Murph is a great, great guy," Thomas said. "He's got a heart as big as his chest, and he's got a real big chest.  He's just so knowledgeable about the game. He's good at every area of the game, not just a guy. He'll play 18 position players in one game."

 

It's fitting in a way that Thomas will face ASU and Miami in his first season as head coach, as he hopes to make the Panthers golden once again.

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