I didn't grow up in Valparaiso, so I'm not familiar with Dale Gott.
A writing friend in the know shared his recollections of the Vikings basketball star from the late 1950s who went on to play at Tulane. Tough, but beloved, Gott returned after college to Valpo, where he coached a couple generations of future Vikings in football, basketball and baseball, none of them at the varsity level. He could have. He just didn't want the spotlight.
Matt Thomas grew up across the street from Gott, which is ironic in the sense that he's much like him, a no-nonsense disciplinarian with an old-school style, albeit in a new-school era.
A former Viking baller and distance runner, Thomas has been in the school system for more than 15 years, coaching at the junior high, freshman and junior varsity levels during his employment.
He's likely had chances to coach elsewhere but didn't take them. Thomas, like Gott, is a Valpo lifer. He's spent virtually his entire career here. The difference is, after a lengthy run of coaching at 6 o'clock, Thomas aspires to be calling the shots at 7:30, and Joe Otis' move to the girls side gives him the opportunity.
Thomas has been the good soldier, staying faithful to the school and to the program. His loyalty and commitment through the changes at the top are commendable, but the fact that he bleeds Kelly green isn't the only quality that makes him the man for the job.
He's a good coach. Good may not even be an adequate description. Thomas was 67-13 in his four JV seasons under Otis. His record at the lower levels was even gaudier. Sure, you can take those numbers with the proverbial grain of salt, but wins aren't the only measure of success.
Thomas is a basketball junkie. He knows it inside and out. He's highly regarded as an educator, which is what a coach is, first and foremost. He is a teacher of the game. His teams are well-prepared. His practices are regimented. He aspires for excellence and demands it from his players.
Valpo doesn't need to find a teaching opening. It doesn't have to go out and hire a splashy name this time. When they hired Otis and Chris Benedict a few years before that, they did.
I'm sure the list of candidates is impressive. It should be. Valpo is a first-class school and a first-class program. It deserves a coach befitting that status. James Blackmon isn't coming here with his two stud sons — this isn't Fort Wayne Luers, a Catholic school with no boundaries — but names being tossed around like Mike Jones and Ryan Bales make sense.
In a lot of ways, Valpo can't go wrong. It's going to be a case of doing what is most right.
Thomas is ready now. Every coach has to break his maiden sooner or later. Merrillville didn't sweat TJ Lux having never been a varsity coach before and look what he's done following Jim East.
Valpo shouldn't sweat it with Thomas either. Make Brent Kimmel a paid assistant (please), and along with Ben Lieske, Vikings basketball will be in good hands for years to come.