Former Polk players, teachers, friends remember Derek “Coach T” Thomas
Published 10:02 pm Monday, March 7, 2016
By Leah Justice
He may go down in Polk County history as the coach with the most wins, but former players and students will remember him as guiding and changing their lives for the better.
Former Polk County and Tryon basketball coach Derek “Coach T” Thomas died suddenly on Feb. 27 from heart failure. He was 62.
His daughter, Brandie Mercado, organized a memorial service for her dad on Saturday, March 5 at the Polk County basketball gymnasium with about 100 people in attendance.
Coach Thomas spent most of his coaching career in Polk County, starting in Tryon in 1987 as the boys’ basketball coach then becoming the Polk County Wolverine’s first coach in the 1989-1990 season and coaching through the end of 2001 ending with 164 wins at Polk. He also coached girls’ basketball for two seasons (29 wins) at Polk County as well as men’s and women’s golf.
His best season in Polk County was the first year the new Polk County High School was built, during the 1992-1993 season when the boys finished 25-5 and reached the state championship, ending his season there with a six-point loss.
When Coach Thomas came to Tryon High School in 1987, he changed the way of basketball. Thomas stressed teamwork and defense, made his players wear jackets and ties on game day and took the players to area churches on Sundays. Many may remember his intense coaching, yelling or throwing money at the referees begging them to make a call, or a few times he was escorted out of a game. Thomas didn’t believe in individual stars of his teams. He always said the way to win a game was through defense and stressed the importance to his players to always help out other teammates.
His plays were unheard of at the time. One in particular was where all his players fell down to stun the other team, only for them to get up and score. It wasn’t used much, but he did pull it out in a clinch.
Players were drilled with defensive slides in practice until their thighs burned and jumping on a wall until their calves cramped.
Thomas wasn’t just a coach to most of his players but a mentor and father figure. If players didn’t have a coat and tie, coach Thomas found them one. Players who had problems at home or school, could always come to Thomas for a listening ear or advice. Thomas wanted every student and player he had to succeed and many followed in his coaching footsteps. Coach T may have been relentless in his coaching tactics, but he was positive and hopeful. For the players who said they could never beat a certain team, Coach Thomas would always say any team can be beat at any time; it just depends on how you play. Thomas spent a lot of his time working on players’ self-esteem.
All Thomas’ teams were in tip-top shape. Teams didn’t touch a basketball for the first three weeks of practice and running, both miles and suicides were a must. If things weren’t going the way Thomas wanted in practice, the common phrase of “on the line,” would shout from his mouth and players never knew how many suicides he would make them run until he was satisfied they understood.
During games, Thomas didn’t tolerate a ball hog. Ball hogs got sat on the bench and told, “I’ll put you so far on the bench you’ll have to call long distance,” and he was known for sitting out a high scorer for long periods of time.
In his history classes, he was more laid back than on the basketball floor. Most students may remember his mind-blowing card tricks, of which he never would give up his secrets.
During Saturday’s memorial, former players mingled and talked about their different memories of coach Thomas.
Mercado spoke and said how thankful she is that her parents, Derek and Pam, chose to raise her in Polk County. She reminisced about always being in the basketball gym and the many players and teachers who babysat her as well as her dad’s love for all his students and players.
Thomas’ friend and college roommate Jerry Hayes also spoke at the memorial along with former player Antoni Staley.
Thomas grew up in Canton and was a 1971 graduate of Pisgah, then went on to play basketball at Mars Hill College. He finished with a BA in history and earned a master’s degree in social studies from Nova University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Thomas was inducted into the Mars Hill University athletic hall of fame in 2008. Thomas was the Lions’ most valuable male athlete in 1976 after setting school records for assists, steals and free throw percentage while at Mars Hill.
After leaving Polk County in 2001, Thomas was head basketball coach at Cherokee and Tuscola high schools. His total coaching career spanned 30 years with 415 games won. Thomas won a state championship during his coaching years in Florida. At the time of his death in Jefferson City, Tenn., Thomas was owner/operator of Innovative Basketball Training Academy and part owner of Whooo’s Bouncing.
Thomas is survived by his wife Carolyn Elder Thomas, whom he married in May 2015, his daughter Brandie, granddaughter Sophie, his mother Zoro Thomas, brother Stanley; uncle, Hubert Thomas, his mother and father-in-law, a brother and sister-in-law, nieces and many close friends and family.
Mercado is asking for former players and students to send her any pictures and written memories of Coach Thomas to 594 Country Club Rd., Tryon, NC 28782.