A Midwest basketball legend who spent a brief retirement in South Florida, Deon Thomas didn't take long to establish success as a coach. This month, in his first head-coaching job, Thomas led his junior college team deep into the post-season tournament.
Thomas had settled in Pembroke Pines after a legendary career at the University of Illinois, followed by a long, productive career playing professionally in Europe. Last year, he coached the junior varsity basketball team at the University School in Fort Lauderdale. Then he landed a job as head coach and athletic director of Lewis & Clark Community College in Illinois, just east of St. Louis.
That program had posted records of 14-16, then 17-13 in the two years before Thomas' arrival, missing the playoffs both years. This year, with Thomas as coach, the team went 25-7, losing in the semifinals of the Division II national tournament Saturday.
It was a year ago this month that I met Thomas, a sports hero of mine, at a basketball court in Pembroke Pines.
From that meeting, I wrote a two-part series about Thomas' career, which was nearly destroyed in what remains one of the most notorious episodes of basketball recruiting villainy.
That villain, Bruce Pearl, is now head coach of the University of Tennessee basketball team, which is among the 16 teams who remain alive in the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
In his conversation with me, Thomas made it clear that he wanted to get back to big-time basketball, and judging by how quickly he turned around a program in his first year as coach, it won't be long before he gets there.
And when he does, you can bet that the NCAA schedule-makers will conspire to pit Thomas' team against Pearl's, settling a score that's already more than 20 years old.
In a podcast interview last month, Thomas said he was eager to put the Pearl matter behind him, and Pearl -- who was blackballed from coaching after that same episode -- has even more reason to try to forget it. But as long as they stay in the game and as long as they have success, neither coach has much of a choice.
In the meantime, Lewis & Clark will enjoy not just the coach it found in South Florida but the players that coach brought from South Florida. Rico Pierre-Villus was a star at Santaluces High in Lantana, and the freshman forward was Thomas' leading scorer this past year.