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Commissioner Thomas looks to lift MEAC profile
NORFOLK, Va. — For most of the two hours or so that the MEAC football kickoff luncheon lasted, Dennis Thomas quietly sat on the stage. He seemed to be admiring his work.
That more than 200 people packed a conference room at the Sheraton Waterside was an accomplishment. Thomas later told his audience that their presence is indicative of the MEAC growth and encouraged them to come back next year when it should be even bigger.
Thomas has been thinking big since he became commissioner six years ago. He’s pushing academic standards and athletics, especially football.
“Part of my vision is impressing on Corporate America that the MEAC and our institutions are an investment,” he said. “We have a strategic plan about going to pursue Corporate America about an investment.”
He’s already won over quite a few while pushing the league for historically black universities onto a national stage. Thomas has sold one long-term deal after another that he said will give the league a more visible national prominence.
Expansion is a possibility in the MEAC’s future, said Thomas, who has held the league together even in uncertain times. He stepped in five years ago when FAMU threatened to bolt and move to Division I and he’s been one of the driving forces in luring Winston-Salem State into the MEAC.
The NCAA mandated APR is high on his list of priorities, too.
The direction that Thomas is taking the league was a major reason that the Rams choose the MEAC over at least two other conferences, said Chico Caldwell, athletic director at Winston-Salem State. The Rams are in their final provisional season and will host the MEAC basketball tournament for at least four years, beginning next season.
“He is building the MEAC one brick at a time,” said Caldwell. “The good news about that is when you build it that way, it’s solid. When you get it to the top it will stay there.”
Two years ago, Thomas secured a seven-year television deal with ESPN. This year, five of FAMU’s games will be televised as well at least two for each of the 10 football programs.
Since the television deal, he’s sold sporting goods manufacturers Nike and Russell on long-term deals that provide uniforms for the 12 schools in the league. State Farm insurance company and Wachovia are also part of a list of agreements that Thomas has secured for financial support.
“The commissioner is a hard-working guy who is persistent,” said Bill Hayes, athletic director at FAMU. “He is just a great leader with a vision for the conference. It’s not going to do anything but get better.”
His approach isn’t different from any other salesman, Thomas said. His pitch is the caliber of competition and athletic facilities that each program offers.
“First of all you’ve got to believe in your product, and I believe in those 12 outstanding academic institutions,” he said.
Thomas has proven to be as good an administrator as he is a salesman. He recently persuaded the presidents of FAMU and Bethune-Cookman University to reverse their decision about not playing in the MEAC-SWAC Challenge. The event is another Thomas brainchild that’s still in its fledgling stage.
But Thomas is more optimistic about its future now that both Florida universities are committed to the event.
“FAMU and Bethune Cookman analyzed the situation and did their due diligence and they made a decision,” Thomas said, without revealing specifics of the resolution. “I commend Dr. (James) Ammons and Dr. (Trudie Kibbe Reed for providing the leadership that it takes to make those types of decisions.”
This past spring, FAMU and Bethune-Cookman had announced they wouldn’t play another HBCU in Florida other than their meeting in the Florida Classic. Their decision came after Disney withdrew its sponsorship and later announced it would back the MEAC-SWAC game.
Thomas worked to bring stability back to the game, which he said came from an idea to keep the MEAC in the view of millions.
Thomas’ ties to the MEAC go back more than two decades. Before becoming commissioner, he was head coach at South Carolina State. He also spent 12 years as athletic director at Hampton.
During last week’s meetings with athletic directors and coaches, Thomas reiterated the importance of meeting the NCAA’s APR requirements.
“We were telling our coaches that we have to not only improve on it (the APR), but we’ve got to change the way we recruit,” he said. “You have to recruit individuals that have an opportunity to progress through college and get a degree.
“That’s just the bottom line. The landscape has changed and it’s not going to regress. If anything, it’s going to get even tougher.”
Commissioner Thomas looks to lift MEAC profile
By St. Clair Murraine, The Tallahassee Democrat