By John Frierson
James Thomas is a great deal more than a track and field coach. The new Georgia assistant, who will oversee the Bulldogs’ jumpers and combined-events student-athletes, is also a husband, father … and a home designer. “I like to design stuff from scratch,” he said.
Thomas has joined new Director of Track and Field Caryl Smith Gilbert‘s staff after coaching multiple NCAA champions during an excellent decade at Texas Tech. Along with guiding those national champions and dozens of All-Americans during his 20 years as a collegiate coach, Thomas has also designed and been the creative force behind five houses.
During a recent Quick Chat, Thomas talked about his days as an athlete, his excitement at coming to Georgia, his interest in houses, and much more. Here’s some of what he had to say:
Frierson: After a great run at Texas Tech, what is it like moving to a new school, new town, and a new program?
Thomas: It’s kind of still a whirlwind. Everything happened so quick, and when you have a family that you uproot and you move; you say goodbye to one logo, one university, and then you start trying to learn the names of an operation at UGA that’s unlike any other, with so much support and people in place to help our student-athletes and coaches.
It’s been a lot, I almost need some flashcards to keep up with the names and information because there are so many people in the UGA family that play a part in all the success. It’s been a ride so far already.
Frierson: What events did you compete in during your track and field days?
Thomas: I was a jumper and a decathlete. I started off as a high school kind doing long, triple and high, all the jumps, out of west Houston, the town of Katy, Texas. I did that growing up and then I went to college and moved to the decathlon. I’d tampered with it a little bit my first three years, just trying some different events, but after I got done with basketball I had a full fifth year just to focus on track. That’s when I went heavy on the decathlon. I had an incredible coach and he brought me up and showed me the way.
Frierson: In the decathlon or heptathlon, which is the toughest event for student-athletes to pick up on and do well? Or is it different for everyone?
Thomas: It’s a little different with everybody. Some people are naturals — me, I grabbed the javelin. I was an ex-football player and I could always throw well. I grabbed the jav and it didn’t take me long to figure out how to throw a spear in a spiral.
What you learn is the commonalities of sports and the way things connect like a puzzle. If you’re missing some pieces of the puzzle then you don’t get that full picture. In the decathlon and a lot of these events, they’re like a work of art, a puzzle, and it’s our job to make sure we have all the pieces for people to put that picture together.
That’s probably the toughest part, because of the commonalities. If you’re having trouble in one area, like your sprinting posting, your running form, that error is going to be the same error across the board in a long of other events. You sometimes have to start from the ground up and get young men and women to understand that this is how you have to do certain things. There are certain things, technical things, that you need to put in place immediately in order to have success short and long term.
Frierson: What’s something you could eat every day and never get tired of it?
Thomas: That’s a tough one. It has to start with a drink — I’m a tea guy, I’m a hot tea guy, I don’t drink coffees. I could do tea at probably 100 degrees, 110 degrees. I love hot tea, and it’s typically a green or some type of herbal tea.
As for some kind of food that I could do every day, I’m a seafood guy. It can be spicy, it can be shrimp, it can be fish — I like things from the sea. All of my family is from Louisiana, New Orleans, and so I grew up a seafood guy. All of our stuff is Cajun, spicy, things like that. When people ask, do you like spicy food? Not really, unless it’s Cajun. If it’s Cajun, it can be as spicy as it can be.
Frierson: How are you in the kitchen?
Thomas: You know what, I like to think I’m pretty good. My son (Jordan), who’s 12, he’s the future culinary arts kid. He’s been cooking breakfast for the family since he was probably around 10, waking up, scrambling eggs, cooking bacon, turning the oven on — he’s pretty advanced in those areas.
Between him and my wife, they love the kitchen. I built a nice outdoor grill and that’s my excuse for having my man toys, get the pit smoking, and do things like that. From some crawfish boils to some grilling on the pit, I love that.
Frierson: Do you have a creative side? Is there anything creative you do or wish you could do?
Thomas: I like to design stuff from scratch. I don’t know what it is but I’ve been a part of helping design track facilities, I’ve built five homes, two of them built from scratch. One of them started out on a sheet of paper that I did on a plane. I hired an architect and eventually found a builder that could execute the vision.
I like creating. I’ve always had a creative side and I look for that way to create the vision of what you want. My next big project I think I want to do is maybe take an older home in Athens and maybe a nearby area, gut the whole thing out and see what I can do with somebody else’s creation, see if I can still make it my own.
Frierson: That was a very unexpected answer. Did you study architecture? How do you even know how to begin designing your own house?
Thomas: I look back to when I was a young kid, 4 or 5 years old, and we moved out to Houston, to the suburb of Katy. They built a house from scratch; they took everything they had, everything they owned, and poured into building a $110,000 home for us to be able to be in one of the nicest school districts in the city.
We went there and every single day I wanted to there (to the house while it was being built) with my dad. I watched every single piece of concrete being poured, I watched the foundation come up, I watched the inner framing and woodwork come up, every part of the house being built.
My dad was a contractor so he did a lot of work like that, and I was always around renovating, building, painting. That was his thing — I hated it, doing the hottest manual labor you can think of, in the city of Houston. But at the end of the day, I still like the creative part. I can come up with the ideas but I need somebody else to execute them.
I’m not getting out there and picking up a hammer and building it myself, but I can sure bring a pretty good vision to life.
(This Q&A was lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Assistant Sports Communications Director John Frierson is the staff writer for the UGA Athletic Association and curator of the ITA Men’s Tennis Hall of Fame. You can find his work at: Frierson Files. He’s also on Twitter: @FriersonFiles and @ITAHallofFame.