Hutton: Renaldo Thomas is perfect hire for Roosevelt
By Mike Hutton 648-3139 or email@example.com July 23, 2012 11:16PM
Football coach Eric Yarbrough, Sr. (left) and basketball coach Renaldo Thomas (right) talk following an informational assembly for parents and students at Roosevelt College & Career Academy in Gary, Ind. Monday July 23, 2012. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 25, 2012 6:13AM
GARY — A feat I never thought was possible two years ago was consummated Monday after months of hushed whispers. Renaldo Thomas, angrily run off at Lew Wallace for a litany of issues that may or may not have been his fault (depends on who you talk to), was hired as the Roosevelt basketball coach.
I didn’t think Thomas would return any time soon to coaching in Gary. The divorce between the Gary Public Schools and Thomas was messy and bitter, the rift too great for him to return — at least after just a couple of years.
But there he was, the biggest guy in the gym, dressed in a mustard suit, working the crowd like a politician, his mouth running like a water faucet. It seemed like he’d never left. Game time was just around the corner.
His return to the Panthers’ lair, in the middle of a steamy cauldron of potential students with the new Edison team in place, was both welcome and slightly uncomfortable. The kids were there to hear the pitch from new folks in charge. They need bodies — they have just over 500 enrolled for six grades — less than half what they had last year.
Getting Thomas, football coach Kennedy Hannah and new track coach Brandon Wesby, who came over from Bowman, in the room together was a strategy for recruiting students in a city that has open enrollment.
It’s a good move, a smart move, the right move — one that signals the beginning of a new era. There is a new player in town — Edison Learning — and they are going to compete hard for good students and good athletes. It’s time for the other public schools in the city to figure it out.
What’s strange is that Thomas was once a part of the old guard.
A generation of teachers and coaches — the people that nurtured and helped Thomas grow into a man when he was a star for Roosevelt — had been run off to make room for Thomas and Wesby. That is a calculated, cold way to view it.
The move was necessary to give the struggling school a chance to get well after years of neglect and failing test scores. Everybody seems to understand that. It doesn’t, however, make the transition for the people looking in from the outside any easier.
In the final analysis, this was mostly a basketball decision.
Thomas was hired because he had the full-fledged support of various different voices in the community, who know he can coach.
He was hired because he knows every crook and cranny in the city and he knows where the best sixth grade ball players are playing.
He was hired because he knows what it’s like to grow up as a poor, black male in a city that is nearly bankrupt.
He was hired because he was easily the best of seven candidates for the job.
He was hired because no one, other than Thomas, could talk with the kind of conviction and sincerity about what it takes to coach kids in Gary.
“These are not bad kids, these are not thugs. That’s not what I call them,” he said. “I have some challenges. This is the inner city but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it.”
Both Thomas and Little framed the moment about a renewal for Roosevelt and a new moment, not a place where they are going to live in the past.
It sure sounded like the old Thomas when he got defiant about the “haters” and about how people try to “define” him, usually in a “negative” sense.
Those sorts of emotions fuel him, giving him the kind of daily motivation it will take to build a program, basically from scratch — something that he will get done.
It’s also a reminder that no matter how hard Thomas tries to block out the past, it’s impossible to do.