Dad glad to see son make varsity as Valpo coach
VALPARAISO — On the corner of Lafayette Street, on the southwest side of town, in a plain neighborhood, Matt Thomas grew up with three brothers and a sister in a modest three-bedroom ranch.
It was built in 1953 and the walking tour takes all of 30 seconds: A family room, a kitchen, a living room, a few bathrooms and the bedrooms. The corner lot, with a healthy patch of grass, gets mowed by one of the grandkids.
Dan Thomas, Matt’s father, a tall, trim man, who laughs easily and often, moved into the house with his wife, Maureen, in 1973. He hasn’t done much with it in 40 years.
“It was a nice starter house and a nice retirement house,” Dan jokes. “It was kind of snug in between.”
It’s downright small. Tiny for a family of seven at one time. The numbers worked out perfectly. Four boys and a girl. Laura got her own room. The boys slept in two sets of bunk beds in the other room. Money was tight but there was lots of love.
If you close your eyes and drift back 30 years, you can imagine a web of tangled bodies, a family room littered with toys and even the shrill voice of a mother in the summer urging her kids to get outside and play. Dan, then, would be moving some earth for the landscape business he worked for in the summer.
His regular job was as a teacher at Boone Grove. The boys’ bedroom was a stinkbomb. All four — Matt, Dan Jr., Patrick and Drew — were runners. Matt also doubled as a basketball player.
“I used to joke that it took a real man or woman to go in there,” Dan said. “You’d need an exhaust fan. They’d bring gym bags home and there would be dead clothes in there for a few days. Oh, it was nasty.”
It was cozy house, crazy and full of activity.
It wasn’t necessarily a place where you thought the future Valparaiso High School basketball coach would grow up.
Quick history lesson: Joe Otis, the last coach for the Vikings, was a standout player for Virgil Sweet at Valparaiso before playing at Northwestern and then coaching at LaPorte for 20 years. Chris Benedict had coached at Columbia City for years before he hopped over to Valparaiso for two seasons. Bob Punter had been an assistant for Skip Collins, a hall of fame coach, for years before he was hired in 1988. Sweet coached for 20 years and Collins, who retired at 45, coached the Vikings for 12 seasons.
It’s a highly coveted job with a treasured history. The Vikings have played for a state title, won nine regionals and 51 sectionals. There is no way of speculating how many great coaches with high level varsity experience would’ve applied for the job.
Thomas was a scrappy, overachieving backup point guard for the Vikings who rarely played. Bryce Drew was slightly better than him.
But Thomas got the job, for more than a few good reasons.
He was successful as the junior varsity coach, finishing 106-14 in six seasons, going undefeated one season. He also coached at the middle school for seven years. Thomas is a self-taught coaching nerd, who went all in in the pursuit of coaching excellence about 10 years ago when he had a small crisis of conscience. He was coaching cross country and working on his masters degree and running marathons when he decided he that in order for him to get really good at coaching basketball, his biggest passion, he was going to have to immerse himself in learning the art of teaching it. He did, by watching piles of tape and going to coaching clinics and listening to one of his biggest mentors, Benedict.
He was slightly fortunate when the Vikings didn’t open the job up for outside candidates, mostly because of financial constraints.
Finally, Thomas was the most senior assistant of the three that applied and Valparaiso has a reputation for being loyal to its coaches.
All of this was overwhelming for Dan, a man who admits he has a very limited knowledge of basketball. Matt was in the right place at the right time, but only because he had worked so hard to get there.
“I didn’t figure he had much of a chance,” he said. “I just knew it was very competitive.”
When Matt told him he got it, before the official announcement came out, Dan was happy for him but no prouder really than he was for what his other kids had done over the years. Two are teachers, his daughter, a mother, and another son works in health care in Indianapolis.
“Yeah, it’s a shock,” Dan said. “But a pleasant shock. I know they’ve had a lot of great coaches.”
For Dan, though, not much changes. Game time is 7:30, not 6 but he’ll still have his usual seat in the northeast corner of the gym, with Jeanne, Matt’s wife, and his grandkids. He’ll still wonder what Maureen would’ve thought about Matt getting the job. She died in 2008 after a long battle with breast cancer in what Dan called a “tough deal” for him and the kids.
He’ll still wait until Monday to question Matt on his in game strategies.
And he’ll still root like crazy for Matt and his team, just like he’s been doing since he was watching him play in middle school. Dan, it seems, has been going to Matt’s games forever. And he’s happy to keep watching, happy that Matt is undefeated so far.
And happy that his son gets to coach the late game now.